WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama gained ground Tuesday in his drive for congressional backing of a military strike against Syria, winning critical support from House Speaker John Boehner while administration officials agreed to explicitly rule out the use of U.S. combat troops in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack.
“You’re probably going to win” Congress’ backing, Rand Paul of Kentucky, a conservative senator and likely opponent of the measure, conceded in a late-afternoon exchange with Secretary of State John Kerry.
The leader of House Republicans, Boehner emerged from a meeting at the White House and said the United States has “enemies around the world that need to understand that we’re not going to tolerate this type of behavior. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it’s necessary.”
Boehner spoke as lawmakers in both parties called for changes in the president’s requested legislation, rewriting it to restrict the type and duration of any military action that would be authorized, possibly including a ban on U.S. combat forces on the ground.
A new resolution was written Tuesday by Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn. It could get a vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. Menendez is the chairman and Corker is the top Republican on the panel.
“There’s no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground,” said Secretary of State John Kerry, one of three senior officials to make the case for military intervention at the committee’s hearing.
Kerry had said earlier in the hearing that he’d prefer not to have such language, hypothesizing the potential need for sending ground troops “in the event Syria imploded” or to prevent its chemical weapons cache from falling into the hands of a terrorist organization.
“President Obama is not asking America to go to war,” Kerry said in a strongly worded opening statement. He added, “This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter.”
Obama said earlier in the day he was open to revisions in the relatively broad request the White House made over the weekend.
He expressed confidence Congress would respond to his call for support and said Assad’s action “poses a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region.”
The administration says 1,429 died from the attack Aug. 21 in a Damascus suburb. Casualty estimates by other groups are far lower, and Assad’s government blames the episode on rebels who have been seeking to overthrow his government in a civil war that began over two years ago. A United Nations inspection team is awaiting lab results on tissue and soil samples it collected while in the country before completing a closely watched report.
The president met top lawmakers at the White House before embarking on an overseas trip to Sweden and Russia, leaving the principal lobbying at home for the next few days to Vice President Joe Biden and other members of his administration.
Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat shoulder-to-shoulder at the Senate committee hearing while, a few hundred miles away in New York, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged caution.
He said any punitive action against Syria could unleash more turmoil and bloodshed, and he advised that such strikes would be legal only in self-defense under the U.N. Charter or if approved by the organization’s Security Council. Russia and China have repeatedly used their veto power in the council to block action against Assad.
In the Middle East, Israel and the U.S. conducted a joint missile test over the Mediterranean in a display of military might in the region.
Among major allies, only France has publicly offered to join the United States in a strike, although President Francois Hollande says he will await Congress’ decision. The British House of Commons rejected a military strike last week.
Yet the president’s decision to seek congressional approval presents lawmakers with a challenge as well.
Even some of Obama’s sternest critics in Congress expressed strong concerns about the repercussions of a failure to act.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said after Tuesday’s White House meeting that a failure to respond to the use of chemical weapons “only increases the likelihood of future WMD (weapons of mass destruction) use by the regime, transfer to Hezbollah, or acquisition by al-Qaida.”
America’s largest pro-Israel organization, AIPAC, also announced its support for legislation to authorize a military strike.
Apart from the meeting with Obama, the White House provided closed-door briefings for members of Congress.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said after attending one session that administration officials told lawmakers that the targets the military had identified last week were still present, despite the highly public discussion of a possible attack.
Others were firmly opposed. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said on Fox News, “It may sound real easy when people like Secretary Kerry say that ‘it is going to be quick and we’re going to go in, we’re going to send a few cruise missiles, wash our hands and go home.’ It doesn’t work that way. This could be a war in the Middle East. It’s serious.”
While announcing his support for military action and urging fellow Republicans to come to the same conclusion, Boehner firmly put the burden of rounding up votes on the administration.