Thursday, December 14, 2017
Politics

Divided Senate panel approves President Barack Obama's Syria strike plan

WASHINGTON — In a bipartisan but less than robust sign of support for President Barack Obama's proposed military strikes against Syria, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-7 Wednesday in favor of a resolution authorizing use of force.

The vote put parameters on the military action while exposing conflicted feelings in both parties, and the toll exacted by a decade of overseas conflict.

"Americans are tired of war," said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who joined another Democrat and five Republicans — including the typically hawkish Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida — in opposition to the resolution, which would grant Obama up to 90 days of action while barring the use of U.S. troops on the ground.

The bipartisan backing of seven Democrats and three Republicans, while not an overwhelming sign, provides some momentum as the resolution heads to a full Senate vote expected next week.

Clearing the House is a bigger challenge and that chamber's Foreign Affairs Committee began debate Wednesday. Secretary of State John Kerry, who appeared before senators Tuesday, again made the case that the United States must act in the face of evidence Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime used chemical weapons.

Kerry was met with a flurry of skepticism and questions.

Obama pressed the case from Sweden, a stop in a three-day overseas trip to attend the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. He implied that he could still act if Congress votes down a resolution. "I always preserve the right and responsibility to act on behalf of America's national security," he said.

The president also tried to counter criticism that he forced himself into a box by saying he would take action if Syria used chemical weapons. "I didn't set a red line," he said. "The world set a red line."

He asserted it was not his credibility on the line but that of the international community. "And America and Congress' credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important."

Despite his appeal to other countries to join the condemnation of chemical weapons, Obama remains largely isolated, turning to Congress for support.

The gamble is underscored by uncertainly surrounding votes in both chambers, driven in no small part by strong public opinion against strikes.

Rubio foreshadowed his vote in recent days, criticizing Obama for not acting sooner to aid Syrian rebels. "I remain unconvinced that the use of force proposed here will work," he said Wednesday. "And in fact, I believe U.S. military action of the type contemplated here might prove to be counterproductive."

Rubio's move was still surprising. He has been a consistent hard-line voice on foreign policy. He maintained Wednesday he never supported U.S. military engagement in Syria (though he has called for arming rebels) but also made clear he does not agree with the isolationist views espoused by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a potential 2016 presidential rival who also voted against the resolution.

By claiming a piece of both sides, Rubio kept a distance from Obama while maintaining he has tough foreign policy credentials.

"Just because we ignore global problems doesn't mean they will ignore us. Instead, they become bigger and harder to solve," Rubio said. "And sadly, Syria is just the latest example of that fundamental truth. Had we forcefully engaged in empowering moderate rebels, today we would have more and better options before us. But instead, unfortunately, the president, with the support of some voices in my own party, chose to let others lead instead. And now we are dealing with the consequences of that inaction."

As Rubio spoke, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona looked on sternly. One of the Senate's leading military hawks, McCain been pushing for a forceful response to the bloodshed in Syria and played a key role in shaping the resolution.

He teamed with Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, on an amendment that more clearly stated the purpose of military strikes. The goal, it now reads, is to "change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria."

Things got tense in the House when Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said Kerry, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden all had advocated for caution in past conflicts.

"Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating that you have abandoned past caution in favor of pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?" Duncan asked.

Kerry, who fought in Vietnam in the 1960s and voted to authorize the war against Iraq a decade ago, shot back angrily: "I volunteered to fight for my country, and that wasn't a cautious thing to do when I did it."

When Duncan interrupted, the secretary of state said, "I'm going to finish, congressman," and cited his support as a senator for past U.S. military action in Panama and elsewhere.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

 
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