News Column

Kerry Says Congress Faces 'Munich Moment' with Syria

September 3, 2013
Congress

Failure to OK force in Syria would be a U.S. integrity tragedy, Sen. John McCain said, as top administration figures were to push for lawmaker approval Tuesday.

A congressional vote against President Obama's call for limited military strikes to punish the Assad regime for alleged chemical-weapons attacks Aug. 21 "would be catastrophic, because it would undermine the credibility of the United States of America and the president of the United States," the Arizona Republican said after an hourlong Oval Office meeting with Obama and national security adviser Susan Rice.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who also participated in the meeting, told reporters Obama agreed any attack on Syria would also seek to "degrade" the Assad regime's aircraft, artillery and rockets like the ones the administration says the regime used to kill more than 1,400 people in the Aug. 21 suburban Damascus sarin attack.

"We believe that there is in formulation a strategy to upgrade the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army and to degrade the capabilities of [President] Bashar Assad," Graham said. "Before this meeting, we had not had that indication."

The White House said during the meeting Obama "made clear his view that the failure to take limited action against Assad" would endanger U.S. allies in the region, embolden Iran and Lebanon's Shiite Islamic Hezbollah militant group -- both Assad supporters -- and "unravel the deterrent impact of the international norm against chemical weapons use."

Obama plans to meet at 9:45 a.m. Tuesday with the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate Defense, Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees, the White House said.

Some Republicans are calling for a broad U.S. mission against Syria, while lawmakers in both parties have said they're wary of even limited strikes.

Obama is to leave the United States Tuesday night for a long-planned international trip, first to Sweden and then to Russia for the annual summit of the Group of 20 major industrialized and developing nations.

That forum, whose official agenda is economic, is widely expected to be dominated by talk of Syria, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, this year's G20 president as well as Assad's chief ally and arms supplier, and Obama using the meeting to press their cases.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey are to press the administration's case for action against Syria to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday.

The 2 p.m. hearing -- before a committee Kerry headed until February and Hagel was a member of when he was in the Senate -- is to be the first of several hearings quickly scheduled after Obama abruptly put a hold on military action Saturday, saying he wanted congressional support.

Pertinent committees are returning to Washington early from the congressional recess to hold hearings.

Tuesday's public Foreign Relations Committee hearing is to be followed Wednesday by a private one with Kerry and National Intelligence Director James Clapper, the committee said late Monday.

The committee labeled Wednesday's 9 a.m. session "Top Secret/Closed" on its website.

Kerry is also to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday.

Both the House and Senate are expected to vote on resolutions authorizing force next week after all lawmakers return from vacation Monday.

In a 70-minute Labor Day conference call with 127 House Democrats, Kerry argued Syria's chemical-weapons use, if left unanswered, posed a threat to regional allies including Israel, Jordan and Turkey, lawmakers who participated in the call told The New York Times.

Kerry argued inaction could embolden Iran and non-state terrorists to strike those allies, and encourage Iran and North Korea to press ahead with their nuclear programs, the lawmakers said.

He said the lawmakers faced a "Munich moment," referring to the 1938 Munich Pact that ceded control of part of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, NBC News reported.

The Munich Pact was later widely regarded as a failed act of appeasement of Adolf Hitler that preceded World War II.

Dempsey, one of four other top-ranking presidential security advisers participating in the call, told lawmakers he assured Obama delaying military action would not weaken the effectiveness of any military attack.


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