Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday announced his opposition to authorizing strikes on Syria at the same time that it was becoming clearer that the Senate may not proceed with an outright authorization resolution.
McConnell, who is up for re-election in 2014 and facing a conservative challenger, is the only one of the “big four” congressional leaders to oppose striking Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people.
Libertarian Rand Paul, the junior senator in the Bluegrass State, has been one of the most vocal opponents of engaging in Syria, though McConnell took steps to point out that he was not opposing strikes on isolationist grounds.
“I have never been an isolationist. And a vote against this resolution shouldn’t be confused by anyone as a turn in that direction. But just as the most committed isolationist could be convinced of the need for intervention under the right circumstances when confronted with a threat, so too do the internationalists among us believe that all interventions are not created equal. And this proposal just does not stand up,” McConnell said in a floor address. “It’s not exactly a state secret that I’m no fan of this president’s foreign policy. On the deepest level, I think it comes down to a fundamentally different view of America’s role in the world. Unlike the president, I’ve always been a firm and unapologetic believer in the idea that America isn’t just another nation among many; that we’re exceptional. As I’ve said, I believe we have a duty, as a superpower without imperialistic aims, to help maintain an international order and balance of power that we and other allies have worked very hard on over the years.
“International order is not maintained by some global police force, which only exists in a liberal fantasy. International order is maintained — its backbone — is American military might,” McConnell continued, as a group of bipartisan senators, including some of the most hawkish in Congress, negotiated a new resolution pinned to United Nations involvement in Syria.
McConnell focused much of his lengthy address on criticizing President Barack Obama — the president doesn’t believe America is “exceptional”; he is “reluctant”; he has not made a credible case on why American interests are threatened by the events in Syria and shouldn’t send a “save-the-date” card to enemies by telegraphing strikes. Of course, part of that “save-the-date” process was consulting Congress as opposed to acting unilaterally.
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., challenged McConnell on this particular claim, repeating that the Republican leader “can’t have it both ways” in his demands and critiques of the president.
“I listened to the senator from Kentucky criticize the president because he’s ‘telegraphing’ his punches when it comes to what’s going to happen in Syria. Well, he can’t have it both ways,” Durbin said. “This president could make a unilateral decision and attack without even consulting Congress and thereby maintain the element of surprise or he could do as the president’s done and follow what he considers to be our constitutional requirement of a national debate before we engage in military action.”
In 2011, many Republicans (and Democrats, too) complained that the president implemented a no-fly zone in Libya without seeking congressional authorization first. In a March 2011 floor speech, McConnell himself said: “It is fair to ask, what is the role of our military and military alliance in providing support to an opposition we are only now beginning to understand? These concerns and questions are equally relevant here in the Senate and in the Congress since it is the responsibility of Congress to declare war, if it is war, and, of course, to fund our military operations… this latest decision was taken without adequate consultation with Congress or sufficient explanation to the American people.”
In his response to McConnell on the floor Tuesday, Durbin also pointed out McConnell’s habitual opposition to Obama, regardless of the topic.
“He is a member of the loyal opposition. It’s no surprise that he’s critical of the policies of President Barack Obama. That is the nature of the debate, the American debate which takes place on the floor of this chamber on a regular basis,” Durbin, an Obama ally, said.
“First, I’d like to welcome the President to the Capitol today. Members on both sides of the aisle are eager to hear from him, and to share their own thoughts. We look forward to a spirited and constructive exchange.
“It’s often said that of all the questions we face as lawmakers, none is more serious or indeed more difficult than the question of whether to commit ourselves to a military action. That’s why it is so important for us to have this debate, to lay out the arguments for and against military action in Syria, to let the public know where we stand on this issue, and why.
“But if debates like this are always challenging, in some ways this one has been even more difficult. Not because of some political calculus, though cynics will always suspect that. No, this debate has been made more difficult because even those of us who truly want to support the Commander in Chief have struggled to understand the purpose of the mission.
“Over the past several days, I’ve spoken with a lot of people, a lot of Kentuckians. And I have to tell you, most of them aren’t exactly clear about the mission themselves, or shy about saying so. What I’ve told them is that I understand their concerns. I share them. I also appreciate the war-weariness out there. But then, I tell them that there other potential concerns that we can’t ignore here either.
“Chief among them is the fact that the credibility of the Commander of Chief matters, and related to that is the fact that we can’t afford as a country to withdraw from the world stage.
“So no one should be faulted for being skeptical about this proposal, regardless of what party they’re in, or for being dumfounded at the ham-handed manner in which the White House announced it; there is absolutely no reason to signal to the enemy when and how, and for how long, you plan to strike them — none. As I’ve said before, you don’t send out a “save-the-date” card to the enemy. And yet there are other important considerations to keep in mind here as well that go beyond the wisdom or the marketing of this proposal.
“I’ve spent a lot of time weighing all these things. I’ve thought a lot about America’s obligations, and the irreplaceable role that I’ve always believed, and still believe, America plays in the world.
“And I’ve also thought a lot about the context, about this President’s vision, and his record, and what it says about whether we should be confident in his ability to bring about a favorable outcome in Syria. Because how we got to this point says a lot about where we may be headed.
“And that’s why, before announcing my vote, I think it’s important to look back at some of this President’s other decisions on matters of foreign policy and national security, and then turn back to what he’s proposing now in Syria, because, in the end, these things can’t be separated.
“Now, it’s not exactly a state secret that I’m no fan of this President’s foreign policy. On the deepest level, I think it comes down to a fundamentally different view of America’s role in the world. Unlike the President, I’ve always been a firm and unapologetic believer in the idea that America isn’t just another nation among many; that we’re exceptional. As I’ve said, I believe we have a duty, as a superpower without imperialistic aims, to help maintain an international order and balance of power that we and other allies have worked very hard on over the years.
“This President, on the other hand, has always been a very reluctant Commander in Chief. We saw that in the rhetoric of his famous Cairo speech, and in speeches he gave in other foreign capitals in the early days of his administration. The tone, and the policies that followed, were meant to project a humbler, more withdrawn America … and, frankly, I’m hard pressed to see any of the good that’s come from it.
“Any list would have to start with the arbitrary deadlines for military withdrawal … and the triumphant declaration that Guantanamo would be closed within a year, without any plan for what to do with its detainees … there were the executive orders that ended the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation programs…
“We all saw the so-called reset with Russia, and how the President’s stated commitment to a world without nuclear weapons led him to hastily sign an arms treaty with Russia that did nothing to substantially reduce its nuclear stockpile, or its tactical nuclear weapons. We saw the President announce a strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific, without any real plan to fund it, and an effort to end the capture, interrogation, and detention of terrorists, as well as the return of the old idea that terrorism should be treated as a law-enforcement matter. After a decade-long counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, we’ve seen the President’s failure to invest in the kind of strategic modernization that’s needed to make his pivot to Asia meaningful.
“Specifically, his failure to make the kind of investments that are needed to maintain our dominance in the Asia Pacific theatre, in the kind of naval, air, and Marine Corps forces that we’ll need there in the years ahead, could have tragic consequences down the road.
“His domestic agenda has also obviously had serious implications for our global standing. While borrowing trillions and wasting taxpayer dollars here at home, the President has imposed a policy of austerity at the Pentagon that threatens to undermine our stabilizing presence around the globe. And, of course, we’ve all seen how eager the President is to declare an end to the War on Terror.
“Well, unfortunately, the world just hasn’t cooperated with the President’s vision or his hopes. Far from responding favorably to this gentler approach, it’s become arguably more dangerous. We’ve learned the hard way that being nice to our enemies doesn’t make them like you, or clear a path to peace. I understand that the President ran for office on an anti-war platform, that his rise to political power was marked by a determination to get us out of Afghanistan and Iraq and declare an end to the War on Terror. I know he’d rather focus on his domestic agenda. But the ongoing threat from Al Qaeda and its affiliates and the turmoil unleashed by uprisings in North Africa and the broader Middle East, not to mention the rise of Chinese military power, make it clear to me, at least, that this is not the time for America to shrink from the world stage.
“The world is a dangerous place. In the wake of the Arab Spring, large parts of the Sinai, of Libya, of Syria are now basically ungoverned. We’ve seen prison breaks in Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, and the release of hundreds of prisoners in Egypt. Terrorists have also escaped from prisons in Yemen, a country that is no more ready to detain the terrorists at Guantanamo now they were in 2009. And the flow of foreign fighters into Syria suggests that the civil war there will last for years, regardless of whether Assad is still in power. Yes, the President deserves praise for weakening Al Qaeda’s senior leadership. But the threat we face from Al Qaeda affiliates is very real. These terrorists are adaptable. They’re versatile, lethal, resilient, and they aren’t going away. Pockets of these terrorists extend from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. It’s time he faced up to it.
“And it’s time he face up to something else as well: international order is not maintained by some global police force; which only exists in a liberal fantasy. International order is maintained — its backbone — is American military might.
“Which brings me back to Syria.
“For about two years now, Syria has been mired in a ferocious civil war, with more than 100,000 killed with conventional arms, according to U.N. estimates. This tragic situation has prompted many to look to the United States for help. And so one year ago, President Obama made a declaration: if Assad used or started moving chemical weapons, he’d do something about it.
“Well, as we all know, on August 21 of this year, that red line was crossed. The President’s delayed response was to call for a show of force, for targeted, limited strikes against the regime. We have been told that the purpose of these strikes is to deter and degrade the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons.
“Let’s take a closer look at these aims.
“First, no one disputes that the atrocities committed in Syria in recent weeks are unspeakable. No one disputes that those responsible for these crimes against the innocent should be held to account. We were right to condemn these crimes.
“But let’s be very clear about something. These attacks, monstrous as they are, were not a direct attack against the United States or one of its treaty allies. And just so there’s no confusion, let me assure everyone that if a weapon of mass destruction were used against the U.S. or one of our allies, Congress would react immediately with an authorization for the use of force in support of an overwhelming response. I would introduce the resolution myself.
“So no leader in North Korea or Iran, or any other enemy of the United States, should take any solace if the U.S. were not to respond to these attacks with an action against Syria. We will never tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the United States or any of our treaty allies.
“Second, in the course of administration hearings and briefings over the past several days, Secretary of State Kerry has revealed that Assad has used chemical weapons repeatedly over the last year. So there’s a further question here about why the administration didn’t respond on those occasions.
“Third, Assad, as I’ve indicated, has killed tens of thousands of people with conventional weapons. Is there any reason to believe he won’t continue if the President’s strikes are as limited as we’re told they’ll be?
“Fourth, what if in degrading Assad’s control of these weapons you make it easier for other extremist elements, like those associated with the Al Nusrah front and Al Qaeda, to get hold of them?
“Or what if by weakening the Syrian military, you end up tilting the military balance toward a fractured opposition that’s in no position to govern or control anything right now? I think the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dempsey, put this particular issue best when he recently suggested in a letter to Congress that the issue here isn’t about choosing between two sides in Syria, it’s about choosing one among many sides, and that, in his estimation, even if we were to choose sides, the side we chose wouldn’t be in a position to promote their own interests or ours.
“And then there’s the question of how Assad himself would react to U.S. action in Syria. If Assad views an air campaign as preparation for regime change, then he may lose all constraint in the use of his arsenal, chemical or otherwise, and lose any incentive whatsoever to move to the negotiating table. It’s very clear that the unintended consequences of this strike could very well be a new cycle of escalation, which then drags us into a larger war that we’re all seeking to avoid. Some have even suggested that the humanitarian crisis surrounding the Syrian Civil War could actually be made worse as a result of even targeted U.S. strikes. In the end, then the President’s proposal seems fundamentally flawed, since if it’s too narrow it may not deter Assad’s further use of chemical weapons. But if it’s too broad, it risks jeopardizing the security of these same stockpiles, potentially putting them into the hands of extremists.
“And that’s why I think we’re compelled in this case to apply a more traditional standard on whether to proceed with a use of force, one that asks a simple question: does Assad’s use of chemical weapons pose a threat to the vital national security interests of the United States? And the answer to that question is fairly obvious: even the President himself says it doesn’t.
“Now, one could argue, as I’ve suggested, that there is an important national security concern at play, that we have a very strong interest in preserving the credibility of our Commander in Chief, regardless of the party in power, and in giving him the political support that reinforces that credibility. This is an issue that I take very seriously. It’s the main reason I’ve wanted to take my time in making a final decision.
“But ultimately, I’ve concluded that being credible on Syria requires presenting a credible response, and having a credible strategy. And for all the reasons I’ve indicated, this proposal just doesn’t pass muster.
“Indeed, if through this limited strike the President’s credibility is not restored, because Assad uses chemical weapons again, what then? Add new targets aimed at toppling the regime which end up jeopardizing control of these same chemical weapons stashes — allowing them to fall into the hands of Al Qaeda or others intent on using them against the United States or our allies. Where would the cycle of escalation end?
“Last night, we learned about a Russian diplomatic gambit to forestall U.S. military action through a proposal to secure and eventually destroy the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile. This morning there are initial reports that suggest Syria is supportive of it. Let me remind everyone that even if this is agreed to, it’s still a long way off to reaching an agreement at the United Nations, to Syria gaining entry to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and to eventually securing, and destroying the stockpile. As we’ve seen in my own state of Kentucky, destroying chemical weapons is extremely challenging and requires a great deal of attention to detail and safety. Nonetheless, this proposal is worth exploring.
“But more broadly, and this is my larger point, this one punitive strike we’re debating could not make up for the President’s performance over the past five years. The only way — the only way — for him to achieve the credibility he seeks is by embracing the kind of serious, integrated national security plan that matches strategy to resources, capabilities to commitments, and which shows our allies around the world that the U.S. is fully engaged and ready to act at a moment’s notice in all the major areas of concern around the globe, whether it’s the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, or in the South China Sea. And, just as importantly, that he’s willing to invest in that strategy for the long-term.
“In Syria, a limited strike would not resolve the civil war there. Nor will it remove Assad from power. There appears to be no broader strategy to train, advise, and assist a vetted opposition group on a meaningful scale, as we did during the Cold War. What’s needed in Syria is what’s needed almost everywhere else in the world from America right now: a clear strategy and a President who is determined to carry it out.
“When it comes to Syria, our partners in the Middle East —countries like Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel — all of them face real consequences from instability, refugee flows or the growth of terrorist networks. Responding to this crisis requires a regional strategy and leadership. What we’ve gotten instead is an administration that seems more interested in telling us what this mission is not, rather than what it is.
“We’ve gotten the same timid, reluctant leadership that we’ve seen from this President for nearly five years.
“As I’ve said, this decision was not easy. When the President of the United States asks you to take a question like this seriously, you do so. Because just as our credibility in Syria is tied up with our credibility in places like Iran and North Korea, so too is the credibility of the Commander in Chief tied up, to a large extent, with America’s credibility in general. There’s no doubt about that. So let me repeat: I’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with this President or any other in any case where our vital national security interests are threatened, our treaty allies are attacked, or we face an imminent threat.
“As for Israel, very few people, if anyone, expect that Syria would test its readiness to respond on its own, which just goes to show you the importance of credibility on the world stage. As Prime Minister Netanyahu put it last week, the enemies of Israel have very good reason not to test its might. But the Prime Minister should know nonetheless that America stands with him.
“I have never been an isolationist. And a vote against this resolution shouldn’t be confused by anyone as a turn in that direction. But just as the most committed isolationist could be convinced of the need for intervention under the right circumstances when confronted with a threat, so too do the internationalists among us believe that all interventions are not created equal. And this proposal just does not stand up.
“So I will be voting against this resolution. A vital national security risk is clearly not at play, there are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria, including the fact that this proposal is utterly detached from a wider strategy to end the civil war there, and on the specific question of deterring the use of chemical weapons, the President’s proposal appears to be based on a contradiction. Either we will strike targets that threaten the stability of the regime — something the President says he does not intend to do — or we will execute a strike so narrow as to be a mere demonstration.
“It is not enough, as General Dempsey has also noted, to simply alter the balance of military power without carefully considering what’s needed to preserve a functioning state after the fact. We cannot ignore the unintended consequences of our actions.
“But we also cannot ignore our broader obligations in the world.
“I firmly believe that the international system that was constructed on the ashes of the Second World War rests upon the stability provided by the American military, and by our commitments to our allies. It’s a necessary role that only we can continue to fulfill in the decades to come. And especially in times like this, the United States cannot afford to withdraw from the world stage. My record reflects that belief, and that commitment, regardless of which party has controlled the White House. We either choose to be dominant in the world, or we resign ourselves and our allies to the mercy of our enemies. We either defend our freedoms and our civilization, or it crumbles.
“So as we shift our military focus to the Asia Pacific, we cannot ignore our commitments to the Middle East, to stability in the Persian Gulf, to an enduring presence in Afghanistan, to hunting down the terrorists that would threaten the United States and its people. And when the Commander in Chief sets his mind to action, the world should think he believes in it. Frankly, the President didn’t exactly inspire confidence when he distanced himself from his own red lines in Stockholm last week.
“It is long past time this President drops the pose of the reluctant warrior — and lead. You can’t build an effective foreign policy on the vilification of your predecessor alone. At some point, you have to take responsibility for your own actions, and see the world the way it is, not the way you’d liked it to be.
“If you wish to engage countries that have been hostile, so be it. But be a realist. Know the limits of rhetoric, and prepare for the worst.
“For too long, this President has put his faith in the power of his own rhetoric to change the minds of America’s enemies. For too long, he’s been more interested in showing the world that America is somehow different now than it has been in the past. It’s humbler. It isn’t interested in meddling in the affairs of others or in shaping events.
“But in his eagerness to turn the page, he’s blinded himself to worrisome trends and developments from Tunisia to Damascus to Tehran, and in countless places in between.
“A year ago this month, four Americans were senselessly murdered on sovereign U.S. territory in Benghazi. And just last month, the President ordered the closing of more than two-dozen diplomatic posts stretching from West Africa to the Bay of Bengal. As I’ve indicated, and as the decision to close these embassies clearly shows, the terrorist threat is real. Expressions of anti-Americanism are rampant throughout Africa and the Middle East, even more so now perhaps than when the President first took office.
“So the President’s new approach has clearly come with a cost. And for the sake of our own security and that of our allies, it’s time he recognized it. Because if America doesn’t meet its international commitments, who will? That’s one question that those on the Left who are comfortable with a weakened America can’t answer, because the answer is too frightening.
“No one will.
“If this episode has shown us anything, it’s that the time has come for the President to finally acknowledge that there’s no substitute for American might. It is time for America to lead again, this time from the front. But we need strategic vision, in the Middle East and in many other places around the world, to do it.”