Even as key congressional leaders voiced their support for the White House’s plan for limited strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, many remain skeptical.
Lawmakers—and Americans—on both sides of the ideological aisle say there are many questions President Obama would need to answer before they give him the nod for military action.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who attended a security briefing on Sept. 1, said she remained troubled by scant U.S. intelligence on the Assad regime, including its potential motivations for the alleged chemical attack. And she also questioned the White House’s predictions about the scope and length of the nation’s intervention.
“Still troubling to me is the U.S. view that a brief strike will have a deterrent effect, presumably on the use of chemical weapons and that Assad, who has tons of chemical weapons, is unlikely to retaliate,” said Norton in a statement. “I am also concerned that the U.S. has only a slim coalition – Turkey, France and the U.S. – particularly considering that almost all nations have signed the chemical weapons treaty, including most in the Middle East.”
Forces loyal to President Assad are accused of launching a chemical weapon that killed 1,429 civilians, including 400 children, last month.
Senior administration officials, in briefings with lawmakers and reporters, provided evidence that Assad had allegedly used sarin gas, a poisonous substance that attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis and death, in the Aug. 21 attack near Damascus. That purported evidence likely assuaged many a lingering fear about the yet undiscovered weapons of mass destruction that prompted the war in Iraq.
"I am going to support the president's call for action,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters right after a White House huddle with the president and Vice President Joe Biden on Sept. 3. "[And] I believe my colleagues should support this call for action."
"The use of chemical weapons is a barbarous act,” Boehner added. “It's pretty clear to me that the United Nations is unable to take action; NATO, not likely to take action…. Only the United States has the capability and the capacity” to respond.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) added his support in a statement, saying, “America has a compelling national security interest to prevent and respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction, especially by a terrorist state such as Syria, and to prevent further instability in a region of vital interest to the United States.”
The president has been quick to assure lawmakers and the public that the proposed military strike in Syria is not the same as the preemptive action taken in Iraq and that he doesn’t intend to drag the U.S. into a larger war.
The military plan is “appropriate [and] proportional. It is limited. It does not involve boots on the ground. This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan,” Obama told reporters just before his meeting with congressional leaders Tuesday.
The strike will allow the U.S. to “degrade Assad’s capabilities” even as it allows rebel forces to upgrade their capabilities and, perhaps, ultimately end the ongoing civil war.
Now into its third year, the conflict has resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 Syrians, and in the internal and external displacement of more than 6 million civilians, according to the UN human rights office.
"Syria has become the great tragedy of this century – a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history," said António Guterres, the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees, in a statement.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered her support for the strikes on that humanitarian basis, saying the poison attacks were "outside the circle of civilized human behavior."
"Humanity drew a line decades ago that I think if we ignore, we do so to the peril of many other people who could suffer," said the California lawmaker.
Such support—including the backing of usual Obama detractors Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.)—by no means indicates a slam dunk for Obama, especially since the fears raised by Norton—that a simple “strike” could escalate into a years-long war—were buttressed Sept. 3, when United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that any "punitive" action taken against Syria would be without Security Council approval and could ignite more turmoil on the Middle East.
"The use of force is lawful only when in exercise of self-defense in accordance with article 51 of the United Nations Charter and or when the Security Council approves such action,” Ban Ki-moon said in a news conference.
He added, "I take note of the argument for action to prevent a future use of chemical weapons. At the same time, we must consider the impact of any punitive measure on efforts to prevent further bloodshed and facilitate the political resolution of the conflict."
The president will have to present a very persuasive case to get congressional authorization, given such misgivings.
"The President …needs to clearly demonstrate that the use of military force would strengthen America's security,” said former Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) in a statement. “I want to hear his case to Congress and to the American people."