While Congress is in recess through the coming week, the Congressional debate on whether the U.S. military will strike Syria began in the media on Sunday, Sep. 1. President Obama made his case against the Syrian regime’s use of WMDs Saturday, Aug. 31, announcing that the U.S. could not sit by and do nothing in a televised media release from the Rose Garden. On Sep. 1, Sunday morning news programs across the nation scheduled an assorted variety of experts to predict what the country should expect from Congress next week.
Wolf Blitzer on a special CNN’s Newsroom coverage of the president’s speech Aug. 31 opined, “It’s a real dilemma, the president faces ... he said if the Syrians use chemical weapons, that is a red line which the U.S. will not accept.”
CNN’s senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, responded “That’s right, Wolf. And, you get the sense from the world, even from members of Congress, that it’s President Obama’s red line. He’s going to have to enforce it.”
Approximately an hour later, the president informed the country, “Having made my decision as commander-in-chief, based on what I am convinced is national security interests, I’m also mindful that I’m the president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people ... I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American peoples’ representatives in Congress.
“But, we are the United States of America. We cannot, and must not, turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus ... We aren't perfect. But this nation, more than any other, has been willing to meet those responsibilities.”
ABC News reported Sunday morning, “now the action moves from the White House to Capitol Hill where the Administration is going to launch an all-out lobbying campaign and where lawmakers have already started to grapple with what will be a major decision.”
Senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, said “The debate is not going to start, officially, until next week. Congress is still on its week-long recess, finishing up this summer break ... but the real work is starting right now. There’s a classified briefing on The Hill this afternoon. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee begins taking some of those witness testimonies on Tuesday. So, this is the critical week that the White House has to explain its position, make its case to Congress. Right now, I’m told by senior officials on both sides of the Capitol, the votes are not there yet, so the White House has work to do over this next week.”
George Stephanopoulos, chief political correspondent for ABC News, co-anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America, host of ABC’s This Week, and member of Council on Foreign Relations is a reliable source of information on political affairs of this magnitude. Stephanopoulos weighed in on GMA and This Week, Sunday. George posited, “If the votes go against the president [in Congress], he’d be the first president in modern times to lose a vote on military force. That was exactly the question that President Obama ignored when he left the Rose Garden yesterday. That was the question being shouted out ... I don’t see how they have a choice. Even if they lose — the president — given what he said, about the scale of the crime — a crime against humanity — he called it, he will have to act. But, he will be doing it — if they lose — without Congressional authorization, of course. The bet the ... president is making is that this is going to pass and that that will strengthen his hand.”
GMA asked George, “Why not call Congress back sooner ... and did the president box himself in by drawing that red line when it comes to chemical weapons?” George responded, “That is the big question. If you look at a year ago, a lot of people were surprised when the president drew that red line. On the other hand, if you look at the scale of this attack, it would have been hard to ignore, anyway.
“I talked to White House officials about why the president didn’t call them back earlier. He said that is their decision, and remember, one of the other things the president said yesterday is that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, has told him that it doesn't matter — that whenever he gives the order, they will be able to carry out the mission. So, a couple weeks doesn’t matter.”
On Sunday’s This Week, host George Stephanopoulos interviewed Secretary of State John Kerry on the crisis in Syria. With the president insisting that America could not ignore the massacre on the Syrian people on Saturday, George asked the secretary of state his thoughts on the president’s decision. Secretary of State Kerry replied to George’s query, “The president hadn't made any decision on the military strike [when Kerry made his speech on the presence of WMDs in Syria on Friday] ... I was asked to make the case for why we needed to take action. But, the president always maintains the prerogative as to when, or what, he might decide to do. And, I think the president’s made a very courageous and right, correct decision with respect to asking the Congress to weigh in, because the United States is much stronger when we act in unity.”
To George’s question “And are you comfortable with Congress waiting until next week for a vote, and confident the war resolution will pass?” Kerry answered, “Well, George, in a sense we’re not really waiting. We've been briefing as of yesterday and the day before ... We think that that helps us build the case, answer the questions of a lot of people who have to vote on a very serious issue. It also gives us time to reach out to allies, friends, around the world, build support on an international basis. And, I think, ultimately, we can proceed, the president can proceed, and our nation can proceed from a much stronger position. I think that we never lose ... when the Congress of the United States has a chance to weigh in and join the president in this kind of endeavor.”
The secretary of state explained why he felt time would make our case stronger, not weaker, laying out evidence supporting why the U.S. had cause for concern that Assad’s regime had chemical weapons. Kerry said, “We now have evidence from hair and blood samples from first responders in East Damascus — the people who came to help — we have signatures of sarin in their hair and blood samples. So, the case is growing stronger by the day. And, I believe that as we go forward in the next days that Congress will recognize that we cannot allow Assad to be able to gas people with impunity. If the United States is unwilling to lead a coalition of people who are prepared to stand up for the international norm with respect to chemical weapons that has been in place since 1925 ... we will be granting a blanket license to Assad to continue to gas, and we will send a terrible message to the North Koreans, Iranians, and others who might be trying to read how serious is America about enforcing its non-proliferation counter-nuclear-weapons initiatives. This goes to the core of American credibility in foreign policy, and I believe the Congress of the United States will understand that and do the right thing.”
George asked the question to which Americans are most anxious to learn the answer: “What if the votes aren't there. Will the president act, anyway?” The secretary of state responded, “The president has the right, as you know, George ... the President of the United States has the right to take this action, doesn't have to go to Congress. But, he does so with the belief — and this is why I think it is courageous — the president knows that America is stronger when we act in unity.
“I think that if each member of Congress looks at this case carefully, as they will, and makes judgments about what has happened. And, then measured it against the stakes for our ally, Israel; against our interests with respect to Iran; our interests with respect to Hezbollah; with respect to North Korea; nonproliferation enforcement of a[n] almost 100-year-old prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, as America weighs, as the Congress weighs, the potential damage to America’s credibility in the world, I think the members of Congress will choose to do the right thing, and so does the president.”
George prodded him on, attempting to make the secretary of state take a definite position, on behalf of the president, “But, if I hear you correctly, you’re saying the president’s going to act no matter, meanwhile—” Kerry corrected him at that point, “No, I said the president has the right to act.” George asked, “But, will he?” Kerry responded, “George, we are not going to lose this vote. The President of the United States is committed to securing the unity of purpose that he believes strengthens America. And, I believe that Congress will see that that’s the responsible thing to do, here.”
To George’s statement that “They’re already declaring victory in Syria, this morning — the Assad regime,” the secretary of state said, “Assad has said a lot of things in the course of this. I think, the more he stands up and crows, the more he will help this decision to be made, correctly. I’m very, very confident that as this case is made to people, the Congress will recognize, and the American people will come to see, the president is talking about a military action geared to deter the use of chemical weapons, and geared to diminish Assad’s capacity — to degrade his capacity to be able to carry out those strikes.
“The president is not talking about taking over this civil war. The president is not talking about boots on the ground. But, the president is talking about doing something that upholds this international norm, and, I think, makes it clear to Assad that much worse could happen if he were to continue to use these weapons. The alternative, for the Congress and for the world, is that you grant Assad and people like him complete impunity, and you totally tear down the entire international process of accountability that has been built up over all these years. I do not believe members of Congress, or other countries, believe that’s in anybody’s interest.”
Secretary of State Kerry believes that “the evidence is so clear and so powerful” that this is only one of many such attacks like the ones of the Syrian citizens “that Assad is engaged in.” This evidence has also provided the U.S. and allies with various options on how to proceed, the most important being the authority to take the proposed strike against the Syrian regime.
Despite all the evidence, despite the United States’ attempt to brief Putin and Russia on the U.N. inspectors’ findings in Damascus, Putin continues to call it “utter nonsense that President Assad would authorize this kind of strike.” The secretary of state says, “We've sent people over to Russia who provided evidence that we had with respect to the last ones, and they chose — I literally mean, chose — not to believe it, or to at least acknowledge it, publicly.
“I think this evidence is going to be overwhelming. If the president of Russia chooses, yet again, to ignore it, that’s his choice.”