WASHINGTON -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell slammed President Barack Obama over his handling of Syria and declared he would oppose a resolution authorizing the use of force against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"I will be voting against this resolution -- a vital national security risk is clearly not at play," McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a Senate floor speech Tuesday, after laying out in detail how he thought Obama had botched the issue and why that made the decision difficult for McConnell.
"This debate has been made more difficult because even those of us who truly want to support the commander-in-chief have struggled to understand the purpose of the mission," McConnell said.
"No one should be faulted for being skeptical about this proposal, regardless of what party they’re in, or for being dumbfounded at the ham-handed manner in which the White House announced it. There is absolutely no reason to signal to the enemy when and how, and for how long, you plan to strike them -- none. As I’ve said before, you don’t send out a save-the-date card to the enemy," McConnell said.
The resolution currently on the table in the Senate, a measure that passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, would authorize a bombing campaign lasting up to 90 days and would bar any U.S. "boots on the ground" in conducting the mission.
Early on, full Senate approval of airstrikes against the Assad regime seemed likely, but McConnell now joins a growing list of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle opposing the proposed action. He's also the first of Congress' four top leaders to oppose the resolution. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) all back punishing Assad for allegedly killing more than 1,400 civilians in an Aug. 21 gas attack.
The limited scope of the proposed authorization to use military force was meant to reassure Americans that the nation would not become entangled in yet another Middle Eastern war, while still asserting the U.S. claim to moral leadership in the face of atrocity.
But McConnell said Tuesday that such a limited plan made no sense. Although the measure also calls for the administration to present a broader plan within 30 days of the resolution being enacted, McConnell said there simply were too many blanks that need to be filled in.
"There are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria, including the fact that this proposal is utterly detached from a wider strategy to end the civil war there, and on the specific question of deterring the use of chemical weapons, the president's proposal appears to be based on a contradiction," McConnell said.
"Either we will strike targets that threaten the stability of the regime -- something the president says he does not intend to do -- or we will execute a strike so narrow as to be a mere demonstration," said McConnell, adding that the lack of a clear plan was a serious problem.
In his looming 2014 reelection bid, the Senate minority leader is facing a tea party primary challenger who has come out against a Syrian strike. Many others associated with the tea party, including McConnell's fellow Kentucky senator, Rand Paul (R), oppose military action against Assad -- although McConnell insisted there was no "political calculus" in his decision.
"I've spent a lot of time weighing all these things. I've thought a lot about America's obligations, and the irreplaceable role that I've always believed, and still believe, America plays in the world," McConnell said. "I've also thought a lot about the context, about this president's vision, and his record, and what it says about whether we should be confident in his ability to bring about a favorable outcome in Syria. Because how we got to this point says a lot about where we may be headed."
How we got here, according to McConnell, was through shoddy foreign policy. Calling the president a "very reluctant commander-in-chief," McConnell said Obama's "humbler," "gentler" approach to foreign policy has been marked by a series of retreats and missteps that have left the world more dangerous. He argued that a limited strike in Syria could have many unpredictable, unintended consequences, from provoking Assad to use more chemical weapons to weakening Assad in such a way that lets al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel groups grab those weapons.
McConnell's solution was to adopt a broader, more hawk-like foreign policy, though he did not offer a specific suggestion for dealing with Syria.
"This one punitive strike we're debating could not make up for the president's performance over the past five years," McConnell said.
"If this episode has shown us anything, it's that the time has come for the president to finally acknowledge that there's no substitute for American might," he said. "It is time for America to lead again, this time from the front."
One of Obama's allies in the push for a resolution, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), took to the Senate floor moments later, saying McConnell was overlooking Obama's foreign policy successes.
"To stand here and criticize this president as some reluctant warrior is unfair," said Durbin, noting that Obama had ended the war in Iraq, was ending it in Afghanistan and had attacked al-Qaeda aggressively, including killing Osama bin Laden.
Durbin added that in Obama's case, reluctance has been wielded well. "Reluctant, yes, but wise -- I want a wise warrior, too," Durbin said.
He also faulted McConnell for criticizing the president for seeking a congressional vote, noting that many in Congress wanted just that and that Congress has a responsibility to debate issues of war and peace.
"You can't on the one hand criticize this president for stepping up and saying we need to take action, if necessary, to stop the use of chemical weapons, and then on the other hand say he's the reluctant warrior," Durbin said, adding, "How in the world do you recognize those two points of view?"
BEFORE YOU GO
09/11/2013 6:02 PM EDT
U.S. Struggling To Destroy Its Own Chemical Weapons Stockpile
The Guardian reports that despite promising to destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons by 2012, the United States still has thousands of tons of lethal gas stored in facilities in Kentucky and Colorado.
According to reporter Paul Lewis, the most recent projections indicate that the weapons dump will not be complete until 2023 -- eight years after Russia said it will be fully rid of nerve agents.
"By missing its deadlines, the U.S. and other countries have arguably breached a founding principle of the same treaty cited as a reason to justify an attack on Syria," Lewis wrote.
Though Syria's chemical weapons stockpile is expected to be much smaller than those of Russia and the U.S., Lewis points out, the delays many countries have experienced in destroying their arsenals indicate the technological and political challenges likely in attempting to disarm Damascus.
Read the full story here.
--Kavitha A. Davidson
09/11/2013 5:24 PM EDT
Chomsky: 'The United States Is A Rogue State'
In an interview with Democracy Now!, Noam Chomsky takes issue with Obama's characterization of the United States as "the anchor of global security" in Tuesday night's address.
Pointing to America's use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, as well as its role in overthrowing democratically elected leaders while ushering in dictatorships across Latin America, Chomsky fervently rejects the president's entire premise for taking military action in Syria.
"The United States is a rogue state," Chomsky said. "It doesn’t pay any attention to international law."
He notes the seeming hypocrisy in calling for Syria to adhere to internationally established norms against the possession of chemical weapons without demanding the same from other countries -- namely, Israel. (As Chomsky points out, the U.S. under Ronald Reagan vetoed UN Security Council resolutions that would have required all nations to observe international law.)
Chomsky sums up Obama's address thusly:
So what he said is, 'I’m going to lie like a trooper about history; I’m going to suppress the U.S. role, the actual U.S. role, for the last seven decades; I’m going to maintain the threat of force, which is, of course, illegal; and I’m going to ensure that the chemical weapons convention is not imposed on the region, because our ally, Israel, would be subjected to it.' And I think those are some of the main points of his address.
Watch the entire interview in the video below, and read the full transcript of the segment here.
--Kavitha A. Davidson
09/11/2013 5:10 PM EDT
Biden Holds Two Classified Briefings On Syria For House Republicans, Source Says
Vice President Joe Biden hosted two classified briefings in the White House Situation Room Wednesday for groups of House Republicans, an administration official confirmed to HuffPost. The meetings were not on Biden's public schedule, and according to an attendee, Syria topped the agenda.
Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) said in a tweet this afternoon that his meeting with Biden lasted two hours, and Schock appreciated Biden's "frank discussion and personal outreach."
Just a day earlier, Schock expressed frustration with the Obama administration's shifting position on Syrian chemical weapons negotiations.
“There are so many moving parts,” Schock told Time. “The Administration’s statements continue to change over a 24-hour period. We’re going to strike, we’d like Congress’s approval, we don’t need Congress’s approval—that’s what we heard last week—to now we may not strike if Assad gives up his weapons to Russia.”
-- Christina Wilkie
09/11/2013 4:29 PM EDT
Are Americans Too Desensitized To Care About Syria?
David Nakamura posits that one of the toughest challenges Obama faces is getting Americans to care about Syria -- and not simply because of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Washington Post writer notes that the images of children writhing on hospital floors in the aftermath of the Aug. 21 chemical attack may not be informative or graphic enough to elicit the emotional response the administration has hoped for during its strike campaign.
Images of dead bodies or men gasping for air and convulsing may produce a horrified reaction, but they do not necessarily explain to a viewer what happened or why, said Scott Sigmund Gartner, a scholar at Penn State University who has studied the affect of war imagery on the public.
"The images that are the most powerful tells [sic] a story that is understandable without captions, without additional explanation," Gartner said. "The images I’ve seen in the media are terrible; they are horrific. But they do not tell a story about the role of chemical weapons -- and it’s unfair to even ask ... that of an image because with chemical weapons, most of the time there’s nothing to see."
Additionally, Nakamura spoke to an expert who acknowledged that while humans are "hard-wired" to fear poisons and gases, the Syria attack videos "lack raw emotional power compared to bloodier photos and videos that the public has seen from other war zones."
Read the full story here.
--Kavitha A. Davidson
09/11/2013 3:35 PM EDT
New Details on U.S.-Russia Negotiations In Geneva
More details emerged Wednesday about Secretary of State John Kerry's trip to Geneva to meet with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and negotiate a plan to turn over Syria's chemical weapons to international control.
Kerry will depart late Wednesday night accompanied by a team of United States chemical weapons experts, and spend Thursday and Friday in Geneva, according to a State Department spokeswoman. He is scheduled to meet with Lavrov and with United Nations Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi. There were no plans Wednesday for Kerry to meet with members of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
The Geneva meetings will give the U.S. an opportunity to evaluate whether the Russian proposal is serious, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. The U.S. scientists also will work with their Russian counterparts to "make this effort logistically and technically possible," Psaki said.
The safety of any weapons inspectors or removal teams while in Syria will certainly be part of the discussion, she said.
Psaki said the negotiations between Kerry and Lavrov are separate from early-stage negotiations on Syria held Wednesday in New York between representatives of the five permanent member nations on the U.N. Security Council. She acknowledged, however, that "all these pieces are linked together."
The U.N. negotiations grew tense Wednesday, when Russia rejected a proposal by France and the U.S. for a binding resolution. The resolution would strip Assad of his chemical weapons and impose "very severe consequences" if he failed to comply.
09/11/2013 2:59 PM EDT
Team Of Chemical Weapons Specialists To Travel With Kerry To Geneva
Secretary of State John Kerry will be accompanied during his two-day trip to Geneva this week by a team of United States chemical weapons experts. The team will help Kerry negotiate the details of a Russian plan to rid Syria of chemical weapons.
A State Department spokeswoman said the names of the experts would be released when the list was finalized, and that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kerry's counterpart in the negotiations, also will bring a team of scientists and specialists to the meeting.
Despite a bumpy road ahead for any multinational agreements on Syria's chemical weapons, the inclusion of logistics experts and scientists in what was initially called a diplomatic mission underscores how far the U.S. and Russia have come toward an agreement in just 72 hours.
-- Christina Wilkie
09/11/2013 1:50 PM EDT
Report: All Five Permanent Members Of UN Security Council To Meet Today On Syria
JUST IN: Five permanent UN Security Council member nations meeting today to discuss next steps re Syrian chemical weapons.— NBC News (@NBCNews) September 11, 2013
09/11/2013 1:45 PM EDT
John Boehner's Syria Stance Not Playing Well Back Home
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declared early on his support for President Barack Obama's plan to take military action in Syria. But according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, that position is not playing well in Boehner's Republican district back in Ohio:
One political expert said Boehner’s support might cost him votes next session for Speaker of the House, but he doubts it would oust him from Congress.
Of the 20 people the Enquirer approached about Boehner, some didn’t even know who he was, much less what was his stance on an attack on Syria.
Other opinions ranged from applauding him for at least making a decision to questions about whether he’s still a conservative. One person said he staunchly agrees with what Boehner did and that politics shouldn’t be involved.
Patricia Harmon, 49, of Middletown, suggested Boehner was a turncoat.
“I thought he didn’t like Democrats. Why is he all of a sudden backing the president?” she said.
-- Amanda Terkel
09/11/2013 12:09 PM EDT
Damascus Residents Line Up For Passports
Despite President Obama's call for Congress to delay a vote on a military strike against Syria, dozens of Syrians lined up in Damascus for passports to leave the country. Reuters reports that many residents of the Syrian capital appear wary of current negotiations at the U.N. to force Syria to give up its chemical weapons.
"We just decided it was time we got passports for the whole family," Raghad, a mother of three in her thirties, told Reuters. Raghad explained that while the family would not need a passport to cross the border into neighboring Lebanon, it would require documents to leave for a third country. "Now with all this news, what if we went to Lebanon and couldn't return? We need passports in case we have no choice but to travel to a third country," Raghad said. "For now, based on the latest news, we're staying until something changes."
Read the full story here.
09/11/2013 11:51 AM EDT
Israel: Syria Must Be Stripped Of Chemical Weapons
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the international community to strip Syria of its chemical weapons, Reuters reports:
Netanyahu said Syria had carried out a "crime against humanity" by killing innocent civilians with chemical weapons and that Syria's ally Iran, who is at odds with the West over its nuclear program, was watching to see how the world acted.
Read the full story here.