September 10, 2013

Obama blends threat of Syria attack, hope of diplomacy

Seizing on that two-track strategy, a group of senators crafts a resolution calling for a U.N. team to remove Syria's chemical weapons by a set deadline and authorizing military action if that doesn't happen.

The Associated Press

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President Barack Obama, accompanied by Senate Sergeant at Arms and Doorkeeper Terrance Gainer, right, leaves a meeting with congressional Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, where they discussed Syria. On Tuesday night, the president will address the nation on Syria. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

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OBAMA ADDRESSES THE NATION ON SYRIA

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Syria has long refused to provide an accounting of the size of its stockpile, rarely referring in public to its existence. According to an unclassified estimate by the French government, it includes more than 1,000 tons of "chemical agents and precursor chemicals," including sulfur mustard, VX and sarin gas.

Obama has said frequently he has the authority as commander in chief to order a military strike against Assad regardless of any vote in Congress, and he has consistently declined to say whether he would do so if lawmakers refuse to approve the legislation he is seeking.

The response in Congress to support such a strike has been lukewarm at best — as underscored during the day when liberal Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and conservative Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., both announced their opposition.

Markey, who was elected to the seat that Kerry vacated when he joined the Cabinet, said the legislation under consideration was too broad, "the effects of a strike are too unpredictable, and ... I believe we must give diplomatic measures that could avoid military action a chance to work."

Said Mulvaney: "While I am concerned about taking no action, it strikes me that international law cannot be upheld via unilateral attack by the United States."

And Rep. James Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat who sits on committees dealing both with military and intelligence matters, said he feared that "Iran and Russia could cause serious damage" to the United States if they retaliated with a cyberattack.

Yet Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, said, "It would be inimical to our country's standing if we do not show a willingness to act in the face of the use of chemical weapons and to act in a limited way to address that use alone."

Hours before Obama's speech from the White House's East Room, Hoyer added, " I don't think there's any doubt that failure to do so would weaken our country, create a more dangerous international environment and to some degree undermine the president of the United States."

Earlier, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell became the first congressional leader to come out against legislation giving the president authority for limited strikes. "There are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria," he said.

By contrast, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, the top two Republicans in the House, have endorsed Obama's request.

Given the uncertainty of diplomatic maneuvering, no vote is expected for several days, if then.

"If something can be done diplomatically, I'm totally satisfied with that. I'm not a blood and thunder guy. I'm not for shock and awe," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a reference to the massive display of firepower that opened the war in Iraq nearly a decade ago.

Still, there was ample skepticism in Congress about the United Nations as well as Russia's true intentions, as well as Syria's willingness to be bound by international agreements.

"There is an overwhelming view it would be preferable if international law and the family of nations could strip Syria of the chemical weapons," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "And there's a large view we should let that process play out for a little while."

Said Boehner: "Clearly, diplomacy is always a better outcome than military action. But I will say that I'm somewhat skeptical of those that are involved in the diplomatic discussions today."

 

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