President Barack Obama intensified his campaign to persuade a reluctant American public to back military action against Syria as Bashar al-Assad threatened retaliation “direct and indirect” if the U.S. attacks.
With U.S. lawmakers expressing skepticism about the stakes involved in Syria and the public increasingly opposed, the fight to win congressional authorization for a military strike risks undermining Obama’s domestic agenda and weakening his clout internationally during his final three years in office.
The administration focused on building support before a vote in the Senate this week. Obama dispatched his chief of staff to brief members of the U.S. House, his national security adviser delivered a speech at a policy institute in Washington and the president is sitting for interviews with television news programs for broadcast tonight. Those steps are a prelude to a national address Obama is scheduled to deliver at 9 p.m. tomorrow.
Syria’s president sought to inject a danger warning into the U.S. political debate, saying in an interview broadcast today on CBS that the “repercussions” from a U.S. strike may include terrorist attacks.
“You should expect everything,” Assad said. “Not necessarily from the government. The government is not the only player in this region. You have different parties, you have different factions, you have different ideology.”
Asked whether retaliation might include chemical warfare, Assad replied: “If the rebels or the terrorists in this region or any other group have it, it could happen.”
The Russian government, which has been using its United Nations Security Council veto to shield Assad from international censure and has supplied his regime with weapons, called on Syria to give up its chemical weapons stockpile to stave off a U.S. attack.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke following comments by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that suggested the U.S. may call off a military strike if Syria handed over its chemical weapons within a week.
Kerry added that Assad “isn’t about to do it,” and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said afterward that the secretary of state was making a “rhetorical argument.”
The Russian offer drew some interest in Washington. Tony Blinken, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said the administration is “going to take a hard look” at the Russian position.
“We would welcome a decision and action by Syria to give up its chemical weapons,” Blinken said at a White House briefing, adding that Assad’s track record “doesn’t give us a lot of confidence.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also seized on the Russian minister’s remarks, saying he may ask the Security Council to demand Syria immediately take steps to destroy its chemical weapons.
Kerry was in London following a round of meetings with European allies and representatives of the Arab League. He stressed that the Obama administration won’t let a military campaign evolve into a years-long commitment with ground troops, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We’re not going to war,” Kerry said. Instead, he described a “unbelievably small, limited” military strike.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration won’t seek a delay on a congressional vote because of the Russian proposal.
Even before Lavrov spoke, the idea of giving Assad an ultimatum before acting was emerging in Congress. Democratic Senators Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia proposed giving Assad’s regime 45 days to sign the international chemical weapons ban and begin turning over its chemical arms.
Opposition to using military force is growing in the U.S. A Pew Research Center-USA Today poll found the proportion of Americans against a U.S. strike grew to 63 percent from 48 percent over the past week. The heightened opposition was across party lines in the survey, conducted Sept. 4-8. Support was unchanged at 28 percent. Six in 10 said there are no good options for the U.S.
The administration has engaged in a lobbying effort that rivals the campaign Obama’s team mounted in 2009 to win passage of the Affordable Care Act. In the past two weeks, the White House has held discussions with at least 85 senators and more than 165 House members, according to an administration official.
The president spent much of the weekend calling lawmakers individually to make his pitch, and he joined Vice President Joe Biden to press the issue over dinner with Republican senators last night at the Naval Observatory in Washington. Obama plans to meet with Senate Democrats tomorrow.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice raised the prospect of a new threat from terrorists and from Iran and North Korea if the U.S. doesn’t punish Assad’s regime.
“Failing to respond brings us closer to the day when terrorists might gain and use chemical weapons against Americans abroad and at home,” she said in a speech at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute in Washington. “We cannot allow terrorists bent on destruction or a nuclear North Korea or an aspiring nuclear Iran to believe for one minute that we are shying away from our determination to back up our longstanding warnings.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined the administration effort by urging Congress to back the authorization.
Assad’s use of chemical weapons “violates a universal norm at the heart of our global order and therefore it demands a strong response from the international community led by the United States,” Clinton said at a White House forum on wildlife trafficking.
They were her first public remarks on the situation. She spoke after meeting with Obama today.
While Obama and his aides argue the president has the authority to act without congressional approval, such action would isolate him domestically and could prompt a backlash from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“The reality is, I think it’s very hard for him to act if Congress votes it down,” former White House senior adviser David Axelrod said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday.
A failure in Congress could reverberate through Obama’s second-term agenda, heightening the difficulty he’ll face in winning congressional support for domestic initiatives and hampering his foreign policy moves during his final three years in office.
“The president’s asking a lot for Republicans to support him on Syria,” Tom Davis, a former Republican representative from Virginia who was head of his party’s House campaign operation, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. “To go back again on immigration or on the budget is going to be very tough.”
After a week-long lobbying effort by the White House, with aides offering briefings, phone calls and hours of public testimony at congressional hearings, winning approval of authorization for using military force remains in doubt.
“It’s an uphill slog from here,” Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who supports a military action against Syria, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday. “It’s very clear he’s lost support in the last week.”
In the House, 26 members publicly support military action and 202 are opposed or leaning against the resolution as of Sept. 8, with 205 undecided. In the Senate, where 60 votes are needed, 22 members favored the measure, 26 were opposed and 52 were undecided.
The Senate is poised to vote on the resolution by the end of the week. As the Senate reconvened today, Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said, “If we allow Assad’s use of chemical weapons to go unchecked and unanswered, hostile forces across the world will also assume that these attacks by demons like Assad are permissible.”
The Senate’s top Republican, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, hasn’t said whether he will back a military strike. In the House, which won’t take up the proposal until the week of Sept. 16, the chamber’s top two Republicans -- Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia -- have endorsed military action in Syria. The chamber’s top Democrat, California’s Nancy Pelosi, has sent a series of letters urging members of her caucus to back the effort.
Passage in the House will be tougher than in the Senate, given the reservations expressed by lawmakers from both parties who say their constituents overwhelmingly oppose the resolution.
“If I were the president, I would withdraw my request for authorization at this particular point,” said Massachusetts Democratic Representative Jim McGovern on CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday. “People view war as a last resort. And I don’t think people think that we’re at that point.”
If Congress doesn’t support limited strikes on Syria, administration officials and their allies warn that it will make it politically difficult for him to move forward with any broader type of military action -- effectively limiting his foreign policy for the remaining three years of his term.
Administration allies say foreign leaders are aware that this week is a test of the president’s power that will affect his ability to act on the world stage.
“Once the administration made this call, I think there is a real need for us to back it up or America becomes a paper tiger,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, told reporters on Sept. 5.
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