Saturday, March 8, 2014
By Donna Cassata / The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — A Senate panel's deep divide over giving President Barack Obama the authority to use U.S. military force against Syria underscores the commander in chief's challenge in persuading skeptical lawmakers and wary allies to back greater intervention in an intractable civil war.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, center, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., left, talk on Capitol Hill Wednesday during the committee's hearing to consider the authorization for use of military force in Syria. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. is at right.
The administration pressed ahead Thursday with its full-scale sales job, holding another round of closed-door meetings for members of Congress about its intelligence on Syria. On another continent, Obama was certain to face questions from world leaders after arriving in St. Petersburg, Russia, for an economic summit.
The event's host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, stands as a reminder of resistance to U.S. pleas for Moscow to intervene with its ally Syria and President Bashar Assad.
Obama has called for military action after the administration blamed Assad for a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 that it says killed more than 1,400 civilians, including at least 400 children. Other casualty estimates are lower, and the Syrian government denies responsibility, contending rebels fighting to topple the government were to blame.
Responding to Obama's request, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-7 Wednesday to authorize the "limited and specified use" of the U.S. armed forces against Syria, backing a resolution that restricts military action to 90 days and bars American ground troops from combat.
Obama's deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, picked up the sales pitch for the absent president Thursday, appearing on several morning news shows.
In an appearance on MSNBC, Blinken said he believes the American people will be more supportive of Obama's request once they see the Syrian situation as a separate and distinct problem as opposed to viewing it "in the prism of the last decade" of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"This is not open-ended. This is not boots on the ground. This is not Afghanistan. This is not Iraq. This is not even Libya," Blinken said.
He said that if the United States does not stand up to Assad and against the use of chemical weapons, some world figures will believe "it's OK to use them with impunity."
The argument failed to sway two Republican senators, who announced on Thursday that they would vote against any military action. Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana and Mike Lee of Utah, members of the Armed Services Committee, participated in briefings on Wednesday with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Lee said in a statement that the risks of the president's plan outweigh the gains, while Vitter said he was concerned "that getting involved in Syria, after Iraq and Afghanistan, would make mustering our resolve to stop a nuclear Iran impossible."
Days from a vote, an Associated Press survey of senators found 34 supporting or leaning toward military action, 26 opposed or leaning against and 40 undecided.
Secretary of State John Kerry, testifying for the second consecutive day before Congress, insisted that the U.S. military response would be restricted as Americans fatigued by more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan show little inclination to get involved in Syria.
"I don't believe we're going to war, I just don't believe that," Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, citing the ground troops and long-term commitment that he said wars entail. "That's not what we're doing here. The president is asking for permission to take a limited military action, yes, but one that does not put Americans in the middle of the battle."
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