WASHINGTON – Congress is holding its first public hearing about U.S. plans for military intervention in Syria as President Barack Obama seeks to convince skeptical Americans and their lawmakers about the need to respond to last month's alleged sarin gas attack outside Damascus.
Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey were to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. A classified briefing open to all members of Congress was to take place as well.
The president's request for congressional authorization for limited military strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime is at the heart of all the discussions planned in Washington over the next several days as Obama sends his top national security advisers to the Capitol for a flurry of briefings. And with the outcome of any vote in doubt in a war-weary Congress, Obama was to meet Tuesday with leaders of the House and Senate armed services committees, the foreign relations committees and the intelligence committees.
Obama won conditional support Monday from two of his fiercest foreign policy critics, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
A congressional vote against Obama's request "would be catastrophic in its consequences" for U.S. credibility abroad, McCain told reporters outside the White House following an hour-long private meeting with the president.
But despite Obama's effort to assuage the two senators' concerns, neither appeared completely convinced afterward. They said they'd be more inclined to back Obama if the U.S. sought to destroy the Assad government's launching capabilities and committed to providing more support to rebels seeking to oust Assad from power.
"There will never be a political settlement in Syria as long as Assad is winning," Graham said.
McCain said Tuesday he is prepared to vote for the authorization that Obama seeks, but the Arizona Republican also said he wouldn't back a resolution that fails to change the battlefield equation, where Assad still has the upper hand.
In an appearance on NBC's "Today" show, McCain called it "an unfair fight" and said that if the authorization for U.S. military intervention doesn't change the balance of power, it "will not have the desired effect."
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he believes the panel will back Obama if the administration explains "the full case" for the use of force as well as what it sees as the end result. "Not acting has huge consequences," Menendez said on "CBS This Morning" Tuesday.
"It sends a message" not just to Syria, he said, but to Iran, North Korea and terrorist groups.
After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, polls show most Americans opposed to any new military action overseas. That reluctance is being reflected by senators and representatives, some of whom say Obama still hasn't presented bulletproof evidence that Assad's forces were responsible for the Aug. 21 attack that U.S. intelligence says killed 1,429 people, including more than 400 children. Others say the president hasn't explained why intervening is in America's interest.
After a Labor Day weekend spent listening to concerned constituents, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said the administration needed to make its case on these points, if only to counter the misinformation and conspiracy theories circulating about Obama's plans.
"Several people asked me if we were only interested in getting Syria's oil," Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "It's important that Americans get the facts."
Petroleum is hardly the most pertinent question. Even before Syria's hostilities began, its oil industry contributed less than half a percent of the world's total output. And Obama has expressly ruled out sending American troops into Syria or proposing deeper involvement in the Arab country's violent civil war.
But such queries are a poignant reminder of the task awaiting the administration as it argues that the United States must exert global leadership in retaliating for what apparently was the deadliest use of chemical weapons anywhere over the past 25 years.
Obama has insisted he was considering a military operation that was limited in duration and scope. The White House said Monday that Obama was open to working with Congress to make changes in the language of the resolution, which Congress was expected to begin considering next week.
In a conference call Monday with House Democrats, several members of Obama's own party challenged the administration's assertions.
In a post on his website, Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., reflected a view shared by at least some of his colleagues: "I am vehemently opposed to a military strike that would clearly be an act of war against Syria, especially under such tragic yet confusing circumstances as to who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons."
Their skepticism is shared by many tea party Republicans and others, whose views range from ideological opposition to any U.S. military action overseas to narrower fears about authorizing the use of force without clear constraints on timing, costs and scope of the intervention.
The most frequent recurring questions: How convinced is American intelligence about the Assad regime's culpability for the chemical attack, a decade after woefully misrepresenting the case that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction? And how does a military response advance U.S. national security interests?
Pressuring the administration in the opposite direction are hawks and proponents of humanitarian intervention among both Democrats and Republicans who feel what Obama is proposing is far too little.
Obama's task is complicated further because he leaves for a three-day trip to Europe on Tuesday night, visiting Stockholm, Sweden, and then attending an economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The simple case for action is the administration's contention that the sarin gas attack violated not only the international standard against using such weapons but also Obama's "red line," set more than a year ago, that such WMD use wouldn't be tolerated.
The U.S. said it has proof that the Assad regime is behind attacks that Washington claims killed at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists, says it has so far only been able to confirm 502 dead.
Intervening in Syria's conflict is no light matter, however. Having claimed more than 100,000 lives in the past 2½ years, the fight has evolved from a government crackdown on a largely peaceful protest movement into a full-scale civil war scarily reminiscent of the one that ravaged Iraq over the last decade. Ethnic massacres have been committed by both sides, which each employ terrorist organizations as allies.
Since Obama's stunning announcement Saturday that he'd seek congressional authority, dozens of members of Congress have issued statements. Most have praised the administration for its course of action, and several have suggested they are leaning one way or another. But precious few have come out definitively one way or another.
McCain said he believed many members were still "up for grabs."