Talking diplomacy in Syria, Obama goes to Congress
Washington • Pushing military might and raising hopes it won't be needed, President Barack Obama threw his support Tuesday behind a plan for U.N. Security Council talks aimed at securing Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, even as he pushed the fallback idea of U.S. airstrikes against Bashar Assad's regime if that effort fails.
Seizing on that two-track strategy, a bipartisan group of senators crafted a reworked congressional resolution calling for a U.N. team to remove the chemical weapons by a set deadline and authorizing military action if that doesn't happen.
Obama discussed the plan for U.N. talks with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron before traveling to Capitol Hill to discuss diplomatic and military options with Democratic and Republican senators growing increasingly wary of U.S. military intervention. He was poised to address the American people from the White House on Tuesday night, still ready to press the case for congressionally-approved military action if diplomacy falls short.
"The key is, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, that we don't just trust, but we also verify," Obama said in an interview with CBS. "The importance is to make sure that the international community has confidence that these chemical weapons are under control, that they are not being used, that potentially they are removed from Syria and that they are destroyed."
The dramatic shift in the president's tone came after weeks of threatening tough reprisals on the Assad regime and in the face of stiff resistance in Congress to any resolution that would authorize him to use military force.
A majority of the senators staking out positions or leaning in one direction are expressing opposition, according to an Associated Press survey. The count in the House is far more lopsided, with representatives rejecting Obama's plan by more than a 6-1 margin even as the leaders of both parties in the House professed their support.
On Tuesday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell became the first congressional leader to come out against the resolution giving the president authority for limited strikes.
"There are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria," he said in a speech on the Senate floor.
A bipartisan group of eight senators started writing an alternative resolution that would call on the United Nations to state that Syria used chemical weapons and require a U.N. team to remove the chemical weapons from Syria within a specific time period, possibly 60 days. If that can't be done, then Obama would have the authority to launch military strikes, congressional aides said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly discuss the reworked resolution.
The senators working on the proposal are Republicans John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss along with Democrats Chris Coons, Bob Casey, Chuck Schumer, Carl Levin and Bob Menendez.
The prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough unfolded rapidly as Assad's government accepted a Russia-advanced plan to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile, and France pitched a U.N. Security Council resolution to verify the disarmament. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said after meeting with the Russian parliament speaker that his government quickly agreed to the Russian initiative to "thwart U.S. aggression."
France, a permanent member of the 15-nation Security Council, will start the process at the United Nations on Tuesday under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which is militarily enforceable. Russia, Assad's biggest international backer, championed the path forward in the hope of preventing the instability that might arise from a broader, Iraq-like conflict involving the United States.
Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Armed Services Committee that the Obama administration would give any proposal a hard look, but that it must not be used as a delaying tactic and that it has to be verifiable, real and include tangible conditions for Assad to forfeit his chemical weapons.
For the Obama administration, presenting just the possibility of a diplomatic solution offered an "out" as it struggled to find the 60 votes needed for Senate passage of a use-of-force resolution. Reflecting the difficulty, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., unexpectedly postponed a test vote originally set for Wednesday on Obama's call for legislation explicitly backing a military strike. Reid cited ongoing "international discussions."
Several lawmakers, conflicted by their desire to see Assad punished and their wariness about America getting pulled into another Middle East war, breathed sighs of relief.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said he was more open to the U.N. talks than Obama's plan for military action.
"I always thought an international coalition to secure and destroy the chemical weapons is a far better option than military intervention," McCaul said. He called for an "American plan" to do accomplish these tasks.
But there was plenty of skepticism about the latest diplomatic initiative, too.
"I hope it's not just a delaying tactic," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., after a closed meeting of House Republicans on Tuesday morning. But he added, "Let's see what the president has to say."
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, complained of reversals and inconsistency from the administration, saying he and other lawmakers had a classified briefing Monday with top Obama advisers in which they portrayed the Russian initiative as less than serious then later heard the president had said it would be considered.
"This message seems to be changing mid-sentence," McKeon said. "This is a joke."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., appeared to be dropping her support for a military strike authorization.
"The few supporters that he had, he's losing them quick," she said. "This is crazy to say that the folks who started the fire Syria and Russia are now going to be the firefighters putting out the fires. It's crazy to have Putin be in charge and for us to put credibility and trust with him. Oh, and who's along with this? Iran thinks it's a great idea and China thinks it's a great idea. That should tell you a lot."
In interviews Monday, Obama conceded he might lose the vote in Congress and declined to say what he would do if lawmakers rejected him. But, he told CBS, he didn't expect a "succession of votes this week or anytime in the immediate future," a stunning reversal after days of furious lobbying and dozens of meetings and telephone calls with individual lawmakers.
A resolution approved by a Senate committee would authorize limited military strikes for up to 90 days and expressly forbids U.S. ground troops in Syria for combat operations. Several Democrats and Republicans announced their opposition Monday, joining the growing list of members vowing to vote "no." Fewer came out in support and one previous advocate, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., became an opponent Monday.
Sixty-one percent of Americans want Congress to vote against authorization of U.S. military strikes in Syria, according to an Associated Press poll. About a quarter of Americans want lawmakers to support such action, with the remainder undecided. The poll, taken Sept. 6-8, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.