The Congressional Black Caucus could play a vital role in determining Congress’ position on a proposed U.S. strike on Syria’ government forces should attempts at diplomacy fail.
“We are 43 out of 199 representatives in the House, that’s a very important bloc,” said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif.
President has asked Congress to authorize the military action - despite his power as commander-in-chief to do so unilaterally - citing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against his people, which, if true, would violate international law.
On Sept. 10, Obama pleaded his case before the entire nation during an emotional 16-minute prime-time speech. He did the same the day before, making a surprise visit to his former colleagues in the CBC during an hour-long White House briefing with National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
“I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions,” Obama said Tuesday night. “Over the last two years, my administration has tried diplomacy and sanctions, warning and negotiations - but chemical weapons were still used by the Assad regime.”
The president “absolutely” did a good job of effectively laying out his case and answering their questions, said Rep. Bass, who is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and ranking member of the Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights Subcommittee.
“It was very, very powerful,” Bass said of his presentation. “What was made very clear to me was the pressure he feels and the fact that this decision weighs very heavily on his heart and his head.
“He faces a terrible position, but it is something he felt he had to something about.”
In making their case, White House officials urged Capitol Hill lawmakers and the American public to look at the gruesome and heart-rending images of Syrians foaming at the mouth and twisting in agony and the resulting hundreds of dead bodies, including 400 children, after a poison gas attack in Damascus on Aug. 21.
American intelligence has verified that sarin, a deadly nerve agent, was used in the attack, officials said. They also have evidence that Assad’s chemical weapons personnel prepared for the attack, including distributing gasmasks to their troops, and that senior military officials reviewed the results of the attack, which was intended to clear the area of opposition forces.
“To my friends on the right (Republicans), I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just,” the president said in his speech, Tuesday night. “To my friends on the left (Democrats), I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain, and going still on a cold hospital floor. For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.”
Still, like many Americans, CBC members remain divided on whether America should have to “police” Syria.
“The CBC as a representation of the Congress and the nation is mixed,” and a goodly percentage fall into the “undecided” column, Bass said.
During a recent town hall, Bass said her constituents were 30 percent for the strike, 30 percent against, and 30 percent undecided.
“The major concern is whether a strike [and possible retaliation] would lead to another Iraq,” said the Los Angeles lawmaker. “This country is still traumatized by the lies that were told that led us into Iraq, they’re still traumatized by a three-day military action that turned into 10 years of war. It is very hard for the American people to disconnect Syria from Iraq.”
And it is even harder for an economically battered public to accept the need for military intervention given the staggering financial toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bass said the president convinced the CBC that Assad’s regime did not have the capacity to retaliate against America.
Obama also made it clear to the CBC and the nation that any military action would be limited in scope and intent.
“I know that after the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of any military action, no matter how limited, is not going to be popular,” the president said Sept. 10. He later promised, “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons, and degrading Assad’s capabilities.”
Congress’ deliberation on this issue could be postponed pending the outcome of talks between Syria and Russia. The Assad regime has reportedly admitted to owning chemical weapons, and has indicated a willingness to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use. The United Nations Security Council is also working on a resolution requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons, and to ultimately destroy them under international control.
The news is “a glimmer of hope,” said Bass, who hopes these attempts at diplomacy would remove the need for an American-led military strike.
“A door has been opened,” the Democrat said. “Now it is our job as an international community to drive a truck through it.”