The divided 10-to-7 vote on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday authorizing a strike against Syria for the use of chemical weapons showed there is no strong consensus yet on this critical question.
While the committee’s resolution — which limits military action to 60 days, with a possible 30-day extension, and specifically prohibits the use of American ground troops — was more restrictive than the language the White House suggested, it was rejected by five Republicans and two Democrats, with seven Democrats and three Republicans voting yes and one Democrat voting present. The full Senate and the House are expected to take up the issue next week.
The administration is walking a difficult line, trying to persuade Congress and Americans that limited military strikes will be enough to be punitive and effective yet will not pull the United States into another Middle East conflict. In more than three hours of hearings on Tuesday, Senate committee members asked many of the questions that Americans have about President Obama’s plans for missile strikes. Some answers from Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the plans were clear. In other instances, the answers were muddled; in still others, incomplete.
Initially, after the chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 that killed an estimated 1,400 civilians, the White House argued that military action was intended to send a message — or, in Mr. Obama’s ill-chosen phrase, deliver a “shot across the bow” — that President Bashar al-Assad could not use chemical weapons, which are banned under international treaties, with impunity.
By Tuesday, the administration had sharpened its military objective, describing its aim to “deter and degrade” Mr. Assad’s capability to use those weapons. The officials made a central part of their argument that allies who depend on America for security will doubt that commitment and states like Iran and North Korea will conclude that they can use nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction without reprisal if the United States does not act in this case. In Stockholm on Wednesday, Mr. Obama insisted that he did not set a red line against chemical weapons use but that “the world set a red line.”
Mr. Kerry said on Tuesday that Mr. Obama is “not asking America to go to war.” But one of the biggest unanswered questions is what the United States would do if Mr. Assad uses chemical weapons again. Mr. Kerry, in addressing that question before the committee, said if Mr. Assad is “foolish enough to respond to the world’s enforcement against his criminal activity — if he does, he will invite something far worse and I believe something absolutely unsustainable for him.” He left unclear what that means or what further actions would be required of the United States.
The administration is still committed to establishing peace and avoiding a complete collapse of the Syrian state, which could result in even greater chaos. It is not clear that there is a strategy to accomplish that, especially if military action is undertaken and the administration moves forward with plans for increasing support for the so-called moderate opposition, whose unity and effectiveness remain in doubt. The public deserves fuller explanations on these critical issues.
Administration officials have also been vague about the extent of international support for punishing Syria. Mr. Kerry said 34 nations have indicated that they would support “some form of action against Syria” if the claims of chemical weapons use are true, but he declined to give details. At a minimum, there should be severe international condemnation of Mr. Assad’s slaughter of civilians at the gathering of the Group of 20 nations this week in St. Petersburg, Russia. But since the meeting’s host is President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Assad’s arms supplier, even that may be unlikely.