WASHINGTON — The White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said Sunday that the American people's skepticism about the prospect of military action in Syria was "understandable" after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that such a strike would be far different from those wars.
McDonough appeared on all five major Sunday morning news shows to make the administration's case that Congress should authorize an airstrike against the forces of President Bashar Assad of Syria. Assad, for his part, said in an interview with Charlie Rose of CBS News that his government was not behind a chemical attack that killed hundreds of civilians and injured many more. In the interview, to be broadcast today, Assad also said that Syria might retaliate if attacked.
Assad, who previously denied he was behind the attack, "suggested that there would be, among people that are aligned with him, some kind of retaliation if a strike was made," Rose said on CBS's Face the Nation. Allies of the Assad government include Iran and Hezbollah, the militant Islamist group based in Lebanon.
Rose added: "He had a message to the American people that it had not been a good experience for them to get involved in the Middle East in wars and conflicts."
Since President Barack Obama announced last week that he would seek congressional authorization for a military strike, opposition has mounted among lawmakers and the American people. McDonough, as part of the administration's attempts to turn the tide, emphasized that a strike on Syria would be narrow in scope.
"This is not Iraq or Afghanistan; this is not Libya; this is not an extended air campaign," McDonough said on CNN's State of the Union. "This is something that's targeted, limited and effective so as to underscore that he should not think that he can get away with this again." Obama planned to ratchet up his lobbying of Congress this week with a scheduled visit to Capitol Hill. A Democrat with knowledge of the White House's plans told the New York Times on Sunday that the president would attend the weekly luncheon of Senate Democrats on Tuesday afternoon.
One of the administration's biggest hurdles — that it faces opposition among both Democrats and Republicans in the House — was underscored Sunday as members of both parties appeared on television to criticize the administration.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said on CNN that he had "great admiration" for the president and supported almost everything he did. "But sometimes friends disagree," he said.
"This is not a question about party loyalty — this is a question for all of us about what is right," he said. "This is about our conscience. Is this the most effective thing to do?"
McGovern said he was troubled that there were no options being considered besides a military campaign.
"We're being told that there's two choices: do nothing or bomb Syria," he said. "Clearly there have to be some other choices in between. We ought to explore them."
Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said he could not support military action because "once we hit, this is an act of war."
"Little wars start big wars, and we have to remember that, and I think we have to be very cautious," he said.
In the coming days, senior administration officials including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and the national security adviser, Susan Rice, will be meeting face to face with members of Congress. Obama will record interviews today with ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS and CNN, and on Tuesday he is scheduled to address the nation about the need for a military strike.
McDonough said that there was no longer any debate about the veracity of U.S. intelligence on the chemical attack last month. McDonough said several times that Assad had repeatedly targeted children.
"Not a single one of them so far has rebutted or refused the intelligence, which is to say, everybody agrees that on Aug. 21, Assad used chemical weapons against his own people," McDonough said on the ABC News program This Week, referring to members of Congress he has spoken to in recent days. "So the question facing Congress this week is a very simple one: Should there be consequences for his having used gases, chemical weapons, to kill more than 1,000 of his own people, including more than 400 children?"
He added: "The answer to that question will be followed closely in Tehran; the answer to that question will be followed closely in Damascus; the answer to that question will be followed very closely by members of Lebanese Hezbollah."