Beware the New Senate Bill on Syria

Beware the New Senate Bill on Syria

Congress shouldn’t allow a diplomatic breakthrough to open a back door to a force resolution. 


Protesters against US military action in Syria march to Capitol Hill from the White House in Washington, Saturday, September 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Events are moving at a rapid pace, but it appears in the past twenty-four hours that the international community moved towards a diplomatic response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Russia’ potential embrace of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Syria’s the use of chemical weapons in Syria, coupled with a deadline for UN control of Syria’s stockpiles, might avert US military intervention.

Accordingly, yet another “Gang of 8” senators is crafting a resolution more in line with the new dynamic. It would, in practice, supplant the resolution passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, which was already losing momentum. (Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday he would not support it, as did a raft of other senators, from Rob Portman to Ed Markey.)

The new “Gang” bill, according to news reports, would authorize US military force in Syria if the Security Council can’t pass a workable resolution, or if Syria fails to comply with it. The New York Times reported the details are “far from complete.”

In theory, this sounds good—it’s roughly similar to a compromise floated by Senator Joe Manchin last week; both would give Syria an opportunity to comply with international chemical weapons bans before military action occurs.

But Manchin’s bill was short and direct, and tried to force a number of safeguards that would limit the chances of military action, including a strategic plan from the White House with specific benchmarks.

A quick look at the gang working on the new Senate bill would indicate the new resolution is unlikely to be similarly limited. The members are, according to the Times: Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte and Saxby Chambliss, along with Democratic Senators Carl Levin, Charles E. Schumer and Chris Coons. Senator Bob Menendez chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is reportedly “in consultations” with the group.

Notably, while some remained uncommitted on intervention, like Ayotte, no members of the group oppose it. And some, like McCain and Graham, are extreme hawks on the issue, and favor all-out regime change, not just limiting chemical weapons use.

McCain’s role on the Foreign Relations Committee last week was instructive. He held out his support for the final bill until language was added expressing that the goal of the mission is regime change. The new language—and the corresponding expansion of the target list by the Pentagon—made the bill “too broad” for many to support. Both Franken (who is still undecided) and Markey cited concerns about the scope of the authorization.*

Now, McCain is a key player in the new “Gang,” and the final language deserves an enormous amount of scrutiny. This compromise bill is still ultimately an authorization for use of military force, and if McCain, Graham et al. work in language that lowers the bar for intervening or expands the mission’s goals—or both—it’s potentially quite dangerous. The system has worked to this point because Congress hasn’t authorized an unpopular and potentially unnecessary military operation, and thus prevented it from happening; a real diplomatic breakthrough shouldn’t allow hawks in the Senate to backdoor a use-of-force resolution that the administration can rely on down the road.

Similarly, the administration is privately making the case that the potential breakthrough at the UN should prompt Democrats to vote for the original use-of-force resolution from the Foreign Relations Committee, according to Greg Sargent at The Washington Post.

That, too, rushes Congress along in a way it doesn’t need to be rushed. Authorizing military force is an enormous decision, and one that’s hard to revoke—as we learn every time the September 11–era authorizations are cited for some recent and only very lightly related operation.

Already, some are pressing the case that there’s no need for any force authorization until the UN process concludes. “What’s clear is that the diplomatic resolutions to the crisis in Syria have not been exhausted and, until they are, the president should not continue to press Congress for authorization for the use of military force,” said Jim Dean, chair of Democracy for America.

Whether Obama presses forward with that request tonight, and what final language might ultimately emerge, is of massive importance.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story said Senator Al Franken opposes the legistation that came out of the Foreign Relations committee last week. While he has expressed some concerns about the bill, he has not said how he would vote.

​Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel on the diplomatic alternative to war in Syria.

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