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Guest Host: Susan Page
President Barack Obama stunned nearly everyone, including some of his own advisers, when he announced he would seek congressional authorization before ordering military strikes on Syria. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee opens hearings this afternoon, and the House and Senate promise up-or-down votes by next week. Obama’s decision puts his critics in Congress on the spot about what to do in response to Syria’s alleged use of deadly sarin gas against civilians. But he also has reversed the course charted by other modern presidents, including his own decision two years ago to strike Libya without asking Congress first. A panel joins guest host Susan Page to discuss the battle ahead in congress, the reaction from around the world, the impact on this week’s global summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the repercussions that could follow for this president and future ones.
- Jeremy Bash former chief-of-staff to Leon Panetta at the CIA and DOD and former chief counsel of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
- James Goldgeier dean of the School of International Service at American University, former State Department official and staff member of the National Security Council.
- Yochi Dreazen senior writer at Foreign Policy and author of the upcoming book, "Invisible Front."
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. The White House promises a full-court press to convince Congress to authorize military action against Syria. The debate follows President Obama's surprise decision to seek congressional approval before responding to Syria's reported use of chemical weapons. That has delayed the missile strikes many thought would have begun already.
MS. SUSAN PAGEIn this hour, we'll discuss why Obama made the decision and what the repercussions could be. With me in the studio, Jeremy Bash, former Pentagon chief of staff in the Obama administration, Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy magazine and James Goldgeier, dean of the American University's School of International Service. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. JAMES GOLDGEIERThanks.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENThank you.
MR. JEREMY BASHThank you.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850, send us an email at email@example.com, or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Where the president came into the Rose Garden Saturday, said he had decided there was a justification for U.S. military action against Syria, but then he says something that we did not expect.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAHaving made my decision as commander in chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I'm also mindful that I'm the president of the world's oldest constitutional democracy. I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that's why I've made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.
PAGEJeremy Bash, you were chief of staff at the Defense Department until April. You're very familiar with the president's thinking. This was a surprise to many of us that he was going to seek congressional authorization, something he didn't do, for instance, in Libya two years ago. Were you surprised?
BASHAt first when I heard about the decision, I was surprised, and I think I was surprised because we all tend to focus on Congress's dysfunction. After all, Congress hasn't even passed a defense budget. How are they going to tackle the issue of a defense operation? But, Susan, as it sunk in and as I thought about it and as I think other people thought about it, it really became clear that this was the right decision for a couple of reasons.
BASHFirst of all, I've sat through several hundred intelligence briefings on Capitol Hill at the CIA and the White House, and I think very few have been this high confidence, this direct and this horrifying to read as the one that was released on Friday. So I think the intelligence case basically overwhelming. Second, I think the president felt, look, we've got to do something. The world can't be silent in the face of Assad's chemical attack on his own people, killing 1,400 of his citizens and more than 400 children.
BASHBut, you know, I need to take this case to the Congress. I need to have a conversation about this because I don't think that people are as convinced as I am. And I think the president, though, he was convinced, the secretary of state was convinced, he really felt like he had to get more support from Congress for this. And some people have questioned that style and that mode of leadership, but it's -- I think it's very effective leadership.
BASHHe's basically saying, here's where I stand. Here's where I want to go. Who's with me? Who's going to stand behind me? Who's going to stand with me? And he's going to try to make the case, and I think Congress will vote for this. And once they do, I think it will make the president and the country's response all the stronger.
PAGEYochi, you've covered this president throughout his administration. Why do you think he decided to seek congressional authorization?
DREAZENI think because this is one of the cases in which preemptively the pushback has been so fierce, not only losing the British, our closest ally, and having a similar vote go down for the first time since 1778. But even just looking at the polling even if you just look at the way that Congress is already coming out in both parties, you're seeing very significant opposition.
DREAZENAnd I agree with Jeremy. I think ultimately this will pass. It's hard to believe in the Senate that you can't find six Republicans to help overcome a filibuster. In the House, where there's been some voices, some Tea Party voices, I think it will pass. But it's an interesting moment I think reveals the president's own, you know, he's made clear he does not want to do this. He's made clear that he wants this to be as limited as possibly can be, as narrow, as short in duration, as short in scope.
DREAZENI think that the sort of willingness to delay this reflects it. Just a last point, what surprised me the most about the clip you played, the rest of that speech was that he didn't call Congress back in special session. There was a letter circulating on the Hill that had 150 signatories, including about 30 Democrats, that wasn't saying we are opposed. It was saying we want to debate it, call us back. It was almost plaintive. And by not calling it back, you delay any action by another 10 days to two weeks. I found that very surprising.
PAGEAnd the president has the power to call Congress back in session.
DREAZENHe does. And again, people asked him to do just that.
PAGEJames, what are the repercussions of this? Do you think this makes -- since this is a wise decision the president made?
GOLDGEIERWell, Jeremy said it was the right decision. It's the right decision if Congress votes yes. If Congress votes no, it's a disaster. And I think we -- I think the president should be nervous about what the House will do. We've seen House Republicans try to stop him at every point during his presidency. And while you don't want to see members of Congress playing politics with such a significant foreign policy decision, I think we just don't know how that's going to turn out.
GOLDGEIERAnd we also don't know what's going to happen during the next two weeks. We're acting as if everybody in the world is waiting for Congress to have this debate and vote. But we don't know what's going to take place in Syria during the next two weeks. We don't know what's going to take place more broadly in the Middle East that might affect the debate and the votes. So I think President Obama has certainly taken a significant gamble here.
PAGEThe other -- one of the things that has surprised me since Saturday is that the president declined to respond to a question that was shouted as he walked away. Would he act if Congress said no? And Secretary of State John Kerry also did not directly respond to that question. Jeremy, what's your judgment? If Congress votes no or at least fails to pass an authorization, do you think the president would go ahead?
BASHWell, my strong sense, Susan, is that the president and his advisers believe he has the constitutional authority to do that. And so were he to proceed in the face of Congress' failure to pass this resolution, he, you know, he will feel totally within his presidential powers to do that. Whether he would actually do that, I don't know. I think it's entirely circumstantial, and I think in some ways -- I'm sorry. Entirely hypothetical at this point and it depends on how the debate goes.
BASHI will say, however, that just as a constitutional matter, it wouldn't be Congress saying, Mr. President, you cannot take military action will be Congress for whatever reason failing to pass a resolution authorizing it. And that's not the same thing exactly. So I think he'd be on firm constitutional legal and somewhat political grounds to say if I as commander in chief believe it's in the national interest to go forward, I will.
BASHNow, will it spark a backlash? Potentially. But I don't think it's going to spark a constitutional crisis or, you know, let alone calls for the president as having acted ultra vires, outside his authorities or outside the Constitution.
PAGEWell, Yochi, do you think the president in fact is looking for a way out? I mean you suggested in your comment earlier that he doesn't really what to take this action. You know, it's after two years of declining calls to take a stronger military position on Syria.
DREAZENI think having now said he was going to, I mean in the first clip you said that he believes in the national interest of the United States. I think he's in such a corner that to not take action if Congress approves it, it will be almost impossible politically and sort of substantively. There's a military...
PAGEWhat if Congress doesn't approve it? Would he then choose not to -- could he then want to choose not to take action despite his statement a year ago of a red line?
DREAZENI think he could choose not to want to. I think having, again, having said this is the red line, having pushed so hard with the French, with the British, with the Israelis, with the Emirates, with the Saudis to say he's serious, to do nothing would be very difficult. There's also a military question here kind of apart from the politics. The longer this delays, the longer this plays out, the longer the amount of time that Assad has to move his forces around within Syria to hide things that he expects might be targets to harden them.
DREAZENThe president's adviser in a conference call after the speech said the targets in mind are not time sensitive that these are not things that Assad could do just that. But it's hard to imagine that's the case. It's hard to imagine that you could have targets that don't matter at tall whether it happens tomorrow, a week from now, three weeks from now, a month from now. And I think that military piece, the timing piece on the military side matters just as much as the politics does.
PAGEJames, I've covered the White House since the Reagan administration. President Reagan, President Bush, the first President Bush, President Clinton, all undertook military action without going to Congress for authorization. This is really at odds with the course that previous modern presidents have taken. Why have previous presidents not wanted to take this step that the president -- that President Obama is taking now?
GOLDGEIERWell, it's really dependent on the nature of the action. In the First Gulf War, for example, President George H.W. Bush did go to Congress for an authorization to use military force, although he did it just a few days before he was preparing to strike, so it was more of a courtesy than anything else. We saw President George W. Bush seek authorization before the Iraq War. So presidents have sought authorization for major efforts.
GOLDGEIERWhat they typically haven't done is to seek authorization for these kind of limited strikes. And, you know, President Obama carries out limited strikes all the time with the drones. So again, to me, it's not clear why he did it in this case, although as has been said, in addition to not being able to get a U.N. authorization for this when he lost the British vote, it made it harder to see a path to gaining international legitimacy.
PAGEWell, having done it in this case, does that lay the -- set the expectation that in -- for the rest of his term that he would do the same thing? He would seek to strengthen his hand by getting Congress behind him beforehand.
GOLDGEIERI think it does constrain him, and I think it does constrain future presidents, future presidents who don't seek an authorization are going to be asked, well, President Obama sought authorization for strikes in Syria, why aren't you seeking authorization?
PAGEWhat do you think, Jeremy?
BASHFirst of all, I think the next two weeks are going to be an epic moment in American history and in American foreign policy, and I think students of Jim Goldgeier and others will probably be studying this issue for years to come, similar to the Cuban missile crisis as an example of presidential leadership. But I think the wrong lesson would be to say that President Obama is rebalancing the constitutional order between the presidency and Congress on issues of war powers.
BASHI think really what we're seeing because -- and let me just back up. I think when the president came into office and I experienced this firsthand, there was a lot of skepticism within the White House and the National Security Council about using Congress for this purpose. So I think this is more about being precise about this military operation.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll go to the phones and take some of your calls, 1-800-433-8850, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio: Yochi Dreazen, senior writer with Foreign Policy magazine. He's the author of a forthcoming book titled "Invisible Front." And James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at American University. He's a former State Department official and staff member of the National Security Council. And Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff to Leon Panetta at the CIA and the Defense Department and former chief counsel of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
PAGEWe've been talking about the president's comments Saturday, his announcement in the Rose Garden about the course he's choosing to take in Syria. Let's listen to another comment that he made at that time.
OBAMAOur military has positioned assets in the region. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive. It will be effective tomorrow or next week or one month from now.
PAGEJeremy, Yochi had raised some questions about whether that was true, whether there aren't things that are going on the ground in Syria that will affect the effectiveness of a military strike. What do you think?
BASHWell, just before the break, Susan, we were talking about the extraordinary care that this president has taken with military operations. Every military plan or operation that I saw forwarded to the White House over the past four years, whether it was a counterterrorism operation or an aspect of our engagement in Afghanistan, was reviewed with a fine-toothed comb by the president and his staff. There was no bravado. There was no reflexive let's just use military force.
BASHI think likewise here in the Syria case, there's been a lot of concern and a lot of making sure we're going to make this right. So when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Dempsey, also has -- also expressed those concerns over the last several months, I think it really reinforced in the president's mind and his team we got to be careful here. But now what the chairman has said, and I agree with this and other generals have backed this up, the targets were looking at are fixed. There are principally buildings or radar installations.
BASHThey're not going to be able to put those underground or hide them in a few weeks. Also, we've got so much intelligence on that target, if they sought to move things we'd know it. And third, Assad's fighting a war. If he were to disperse his command in control quickly, it would actually compromise his ability to fight the war. So I think Gen. Dempsey is absolutely correct in the advice he's given to the president here, which is, A, be careful, be cautious, be precise, but, B, you don't have to do this in the next three to five days or even 10 days. Those targets will be there for quite a bit of time.
PAGEWell, regardless of when we undertake strikes, assuming that we do, James, how much damage do we think -- how effective can they be?
GOLDGEIERWell, it depends on how extensive they are. We know right now that members of Congress are trying to rewrite the authorization to make sure that it's as limited as possible because there are concerns that the president would use an authorization to do something wider than they would want. But limited strikes are just that. They're limited. They're unlikely to change the balance of the situation on the ground. And as long as Assad remains in power, the situation in Syria is not going to change.
PAGEWhat do you think, Yochi? Could this change the course of the civil war in Syria? Could this result in -- depose Bashar al-Assad from power?
DREAZENIt's very hard to imagine that being the case, and frankly, there's a lot of concern that that would be the case. You know, the makeup of the Syrian opposition has shifted so noticeably from relatively moderate, relatively secular groups to heavily Islamist groups, the Al-Nusra Front being the most prominent of them. I just got back from a month in Israel, and the security establishment there is quite literally terrified by Al-Nusra.
DREAZENTheir fear is that the border between Israel and Syria, which has been so quiet for decades that as we have this Islamist presence that might start to lose ground, they may decide to shift and try to attack Israel instead. So there's both the question of does Assad fall, and then the fear that if he falls and it happens soon, who takes over. And that fear is very pronounced not just here but also in our closest ally in the region.
PAGEAnd what has been Israel's reaction to the president's decision to hold off for a while and seek a congressional OK?
DREAZENPrivately and publicly, it's been silence, you know, complete silence, which has been very interesting. When I was there, what I was hearing was, we don't want any piece of this. We want to sit this out. We want this to go away. There has not been much reaction at all except for an unusually jarring silence.
BASHSo I think, Susan, one risk of conducting military strikes here is that we don't necessarily know how Assad will react, and it may not shift the balance of power in the civil war, which is what we've heard from analysts. But we also have to think and contemplate the flipside of that, which is what if we don't act? What are the risks of inaction? And Secretary Kerry has been pretty articulate on this.
BASHHe's basically said, if we don't act, we send a signal to Assad that it's OK to use chemical weapons. But more importantly, we send a signal to Iran and North Korea and other countries that are developing WMD capabilities and that may seek to proliferate this. We've got to draw some lines here, and we've got to say that if we say there's a red line we're prepared to back it up.
PAGESo, James, you're an expert in U.S.-Russian relations. Russia is, of course, a big ally of the Syrian regime. What have they -- what is their reaction been?
GOLDGEIERWell, it's been interesting that the Russians have really tried to push the argument that it wasn't President Assad's regime that has used the chemical weapons and they're questioning the evidence, and it's really put them at odds with the United States. We've had Foreign Minister Lavrov out there talking about how there's no evidence.
GOLDGEIERPresident Putin has said the same thing. And so, you know, they could have chosen to stay more quiet about it and then simply express their opposition to the use of U.S. force, which is always the case. But they've gone even further by questioning the evidence that President Obama is trying to bring to bear.
PAGEAnd is the evidence pretty persuasive, do you think, Yochi?
DREAZENI think I agree with Jeremy. It's so voluminous. There are so many different sources, be it journalistic, be it video from the ground. It does strike me as a very strong case. One point I want to make briefly, the overhang that we often hear about for all foreign policy issues in the Middle East is Iraq. That's the country everyone comes back to. If you listen to the debate in the U.K. parliament, that was the issue they came back to.
DREAZENHere, there's a different country that kind of overhangs things and shadows things both for the Russians and within Congress, and that's Libya. There is a lot of anger on the Hill that the president did not seek an authorization of military force in Libya, that he used a very narrow distinction of saying what was happening there was not hostilities, which was the term of art that would trigger the War Powers Act.
DREAZENIn Russia, they believe that Libya, the U.S. involvement was a cover, a fig leaf for regime change which they thought, in letting that resolution through, was not what they were authorizing. And it's worth keeping in mind that although Iraq is the issue that we all think about for obvious reasons, in this particular issue, Libya is also a central reason why there's so much concern.
PAGEAlthough the president wasn't -- didn't seem so eager to undertake the military action in Libya either two years ago.
DREAZENThat's right. And I think there, in that case, too, was a close call for the president. And I can recall the White House and the National Security Council really grappling with this. And the president basically said to his advisors at one point, you know, this is a case where I've got to choose between bad and worse options.
DREAZENBut in that case, because NATO was onboard and because the Arab League was onboard, I think he felt a lot more comfortable. And so I think here what you see him trying to do is build some consensus so that he doesn't have to step out by himself. He's prepared to, he's willing to, but he'd rather not do that. So he's looking for international partners in Congress to back him up.
PAGEWill this come up at the G-20 Summit this week in St. Petersburg, do you think, James?
GOLDGEIERWell, it'll be a big topic of discussion at the G-20, and it's an interesting time for him to be going. We've got President Putin who is opposing the use of force and questioning the intelligence. We've got President Hollande of France who's been out front saying we need to do something. We have Prime Minister Cameron who's going there having just lost a vote. Chancellor Merkel has an election coming up, and she's not eager to see military strikes. So he's got quite a lot of conversations ahead of him.
PAGELet's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join our conversation. We'll go first to Jeff. He's calling us from Laconia, N.H. Jeff, thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JEFFThanks for having me. Two quick points. The first is that I feel kind of sad that this is being politicized so much, I think, by the Obama administration. He really can't lose the way he's played this. You know, if he had gone in and struck without Congress' approval, you know, he would have been skewered pretty badly, just like in Libya.
JEFFBy playing it this way, you know, if Congress fails to act, he can blame it on a dysfunctional Congress. And if they do act, he can claim that he was, you know, went to the people and got their approval. It's a no-lose situation for him this way where there were some risks if he had acted without theirs.
PAGEJeff, thanks so much for your call. Yochi, is this a no-lose proposition for the president?
DREAZENNo. I think it's a potentially huge lose proposition for the president. It is the case that if he wins he now has several hundred other advocates making the case for him. Everyone who votes in favor of this in the Senate or the House becomes in a way an advocate for an action, so it's no longer the president saying it publicly by himself.
DREAZENBut in the case of Iran and North Korea, the message they're going to take isn't the nuances of American domestic politics with the Congress and the White House at odds and dysfunctional Congress blocking it. They, as Jeremy indicated, they may take the message of you can use this, and the U.S. will not respond. And that'll be the takeaway, not a question about dysfunctional Congress.
BASHBut I think also the most important issue at stake here over the next two weeks is not whether President Obama goes up a few notches or down a few notches. The most important point is whether the United States goes up a few notches and whether the United States and its interests in the Middle East are well served, which is why, I think, Sen. McCain put it aptly yesterday in saying it will be a catastrophe, be catastrophic for Congress to vote no here and for the United States not to act.
BASHOur -- there are serious issues. And I also want to point out, Susan, that what's sort of been lost in this discussion is the moral outrage, the moral outrage over what's going on in Syria. And it's quite interesting, as one commentator pointed out last night, that the two people making the most argument, the strongest argument for military action are Barack Obama and John Kerry, two people who ran for president sort of against the Bush model of unilateral military action. If they're the ones that have to wake up the country to this moral outrage, what state are we in?
PAGEBut I wonder, Jeremy, President Obama had called use of chemical weapons a red line. John Kerry compared Assad to Hitler. And yet they're waiting for congressional authorization for -- before going forward. If it's that serious, shouldn't the United States just act on the authority and order of the president?
BASHAnd we may. But I think the issue is can we afford to have a debate, a delay? The generals have said yes. And if the outcome of that debate is to back the president, then that consensus, that action, will be all the stronger.
GOLDGEIERWell, I think one of the reasons why this is such a high risk for President Obama is even if members of Congress aren't necessarily playing politics and doing something just to oppose him, they've got their constituents to worry about. And if you're a member of Congress and you've got constituents who are overwhelmingly opposed to the use of force, you're going to have a tough time voting for this authorization.
PAGELet's go to Lydia. She's calling us from Woodstock, Ill. Lydia, thanks for holding on.
LYDIAYeah, thank you. This will be a third proxy war for the Saudis, in my opinion, and I'm just not the only one saying that. There's plenty of information in the news media that's not being addressed about the backstory, the meeting that John McCain and Mr. Graham, senators, held in September 2012 with Prince Bandar, who is referred to often as the Under Bush, with his close ties not only to Washington, D.C., but the chief lobbyists for the Saudis.
LYDIAThe Saudis view this issue in terms of a quest for regional dominance. Iran is their enemy for this quest. And if we go to war in this situation without discussing not only Prince Bandar's meeting with these two senators, but of meeting as well with Dianne Feinstein, then all of the information we are getting is just window dressing.
PAGELydia, thanks so much for your call. What is the Saudi role in this?
DREAZENYeah. There's no question with -- part of her question that this is part of a broader proxy war between Sunni, Saudi Arabia, Shia, Iran that you see playing out across the Middle East. You saw it in Bahrain. You saw it in Qatar. You're seeing it to a degree in the UAE. The Saudis have been the most vocal of our Arab allies in saying that this was a crime that has to go punished.
DREAZENPrivately they've been the most hawkish. But still, you have not had enough influence by them or others to get Arab League sanction. The Arab League has come close, Saudi Arabia has come close in explicitly calling for military action, but they haven't yet done so.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones and take another caller. We'll go to Raleigh, N.C., and talk to Ben. Hi, Ben.
BENHey, how are you?
BENHey. I didn't catch the name of your guest there that was just talking about how the most important thing here is not how Obama comes out looking, but how the United States comes out looking.
PAGEYes. That was Jeremy Bash.
BENI find it -- I have to say, as a former Marine who's been to Iraq and Afghanistan, I find it disgusting that people like that could sit up there and talk about war like it's a chess game. They've never been to war. Jeremy, have you ever been to war, my friend?
BASHI've not served in active duty military, no, sir.
BENHave you ever seen a person get killed, my friend? No, you haven't. You haven't. You haven't seen the disgusting nature of war. You've never seen a child dead. You have no idea what you're talking about, and you talk about war like it's a game of checkers. And it's disgusting.
PAGEBen, thank you so much for your call. And I know I speak for all of us in thanking you for your service in the Marines and Afghanistan and Iraq. Jeremy, let me give you a chance to respond.
BASHSure. I think the individual who called in has a point to make, which is that, as the phrase says, war's hell. And I think if you haven't served on the front lines or you haven't seen it in action, it is difficult to appreciate. And I try to think very carefully about some of the antiseptic characterizations of combat that are sometimes bandied around. My point was simply that the United States has strategic interests at stake here. This isn't just a political question about whether President Obama will win or lose. It's really about whether the United States will win or lose.
PAGEYou also have a terrible milestone just passed, which is the flow of refugees out of Syria has now passed two million, according to the United Nations. The United Nations calls it a great tragedy of the century, of course a terrible toll, Yochi, for the citizens of Syria.
DREAZENTerrible toll for the citizens of Syria, I agree. It's almost, in some ways, unimaginable the numbers. It's also a terrible toll for two of our closest allies. When you listen to officials in Turkey, when you listen to officials in Jordan, particularly Jordan because their economy is in shambles, they're saying they simply cannot bear to support a million, two million, three million refugees. So it's a tragedy for the people leaving, of course. It's also a policy question for the countries they're going to.
PAGEJames, here's an email we've gotten from Alex, writing us from Washington, D.C. He writes, "Under international law, even if Congress approves an attack on Syria, Syria is legally entitled to retaliate against the United States." What are the odds of that happening? What form could it take? Is that, in fact, true?
GOLDGEIERWell, you know, states that get attacked can always retaliate. We don't know what President Assad will do. You know, he may well hope that as the United States has been talking about having -- conducting very limited strikes, that the United States doesn't have the stomach to do anything more than just those limited strikes, then he may decide that not reacting is the best course because then he can go back to the business that he's been engaged in. I think it really depends, again, on the nature of the strikes and whether there's a sense that more might follow.
PAGECould he retaliate in any effective military way against the United States, or would he have that capability?
DREAZENIt depends how you define the United States. If you're saying the mainland U.S., no, with the possible exception of hacking. If you're talking about hitting U.S. allies, most notably Israel, then, yes. If you're talking about hitting U.S. personnel, disperse the bases in and around the Middle East, potentially. He has targets that are closer at hand. He's already publicly threatened to hit Israel. But hitting the mainland U.S. with anything other than a cyberattack, no.
PAGEThat isn't really the argument here, though, the threat to the United States.
BASHRight. I think we have to be concerned that Assad will escalate, which is one of the reasons why our forces have to be postured in the region to prepare for those contingencies. The authorization that the White House has forwarded to Congress, actually for those who are concerned that it doesn't go far enough, the John McCains of the world, it actually does empower the United States to "protect" the U.S. and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons. So it's got -- given the president sufficient authority in that direction.
PAGEWe're going to take another short break. When we come back, we'll go back to the phones and take some of your calls and questions. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane's on vacation this week. With me in the studio: James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at American University, Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff at the CIA and the DOD and Yochi Dreazen, senior writer for Foreign Policy magazine. We've been talking about this debate on Syria, James. What's the calculation for those members of Congress who hope to run for President in 2016?
GOLDGEIERWell, I don't want to politicize this issue, but they do have to think about their vote and how they will be seen, and a lot depends on how things turned out. In 1991, most Senate Democrats voted against the authorization for George H. W. Bush to use force against Iraq. And when that war became popular, that hurt their chances of running for president. And, in fact, one of the reasons Al Gore was able to be selected as vice president in 1992 was that he had voted in favor of what became a popular war.
GOLDGEIERConversely, in 2002, we saw senators who voted no -- who voted yes to support George W. Bush's authorization, mindful of 1991, were hurt when that war became unpopular. And, of course, Barack Obama became president in large part because he was able to say I oppose the war when others supported it. So somebody like Marco Rubio has to make some kind of calculation in the next two weeks. And again, I don't want to politicize this, but if you're a presidential hopeful, you do have to look back at '91 and 2002.
PAGEHow about members of Congress running for re-election next year in 2014? Is this an issue that could become a big domestic political factor, Yochi?
DREAZENI think it becomes a proxy issue for people who already believe that this president overreaches, that this president has taken powers that he should not have taken. There is a sizable percentage of the country that believes that about Obamacare. Interestingly, you've seen people like Ted Cruz explicitly link this to Obamacare. They've said that just as the president went too far in health care by himself, now he's going too far on going to war with Syria by himself.
DREAZENJim's point is an interesting one, but I think it's not simply a politics point. This is a substantive, legitimate debate within the Republican Party. There is the hawkish wing, the interventionist wing, John McCain leading it, Lindsey Graham with him. Then you have the people making a very substantive -- it's not a poorly thought out argument saying that we are overextended. These wars have not gone well for our country. We should not be in them. So there's a political debate to it, but there's also a legitimate, substantive one.
PAGEWe've heard the president talk of the stakes in very broad terms. Let's listen to his words on Saturday from the Rose Garden, talking about what's at stake in this debate.
OBAMAMake no mistake, this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won't enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorist who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?
PAGEAnd yet we also have a tweet from Lonnie, who writes, "Why is Syria worthy of military action for Rwanda, Sudan, Darfur and other human rights atrocities are not?" Jeremy, can you talk about what you think the president's approach is to the use -- the deployment of military power and when it's appropriate and when it's not?
BASHI think, by and large, Susan, the president has viewed the deployment of military forces very skeptically. And in most cases, he has actually pushed back on efforts by the Pentagon and others to more readily use military forces. But there were, I think, three or four clear examples where he has gone forward. First, in 2009, twice he surged troops into Afghanistan. Second, he participated in coalition operations in Libya.
BASHAnd, third, he sent our special operations forces 150 miles into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden and has also authorized a wide range of counterterrorism operations in Yemen and elsewhere. So the president is not hesitant or afraid to use military forces, but just back to my earlier point, he does so exceedingly carefully after all the options have be wrung out, after he searched from all of his advisors and after he's consulted his conscience and also his key strategists.
BASHI've got to say I've been very impressed with the way he and his team have really gone through with a fine-tooth comb all of these operations. There is not a lot of bravado. And in some ways, I think there is a little Teddy Roosevelt in this president. You know, speak softly and carry a big a stick. He hasn't been the one making the big rhetorical case this week for military intervention. He's left that to others. But at the end of the day, he is the one who is going to carry a big stick.
PAGEAnd yet -- you say carry a big stick. And yet by deciding not move ahead until having this debate in Congress, doesn't that leave the impression he's not willing to wield that stick himself?
BASHNo. I think it's his style. I think his style is to try to build consensus. And if there is something where there is a lot of risk or a lot of doubt or a lot of concern, as Yochi and Jim and others have pointed out -- this is not risk free -- I think he wants to help others understand the case and see if they're willing to stand with him.
PAGEAnd, James, we saw the president make a pretty clear reference to Iran, talking about governments who would choose to build nuclear arms. Does this debate, do you think, affect the effort to combat Iran's nuclear program?
GOLDGEIERWell, I think the big issue is the signals that Iran will be getting about how the United States responds to the kinds of things that we've been seeing in Syria. They're watching this very closely because, you know, they want to know when the president talks about red lines, does he mean what he says? And so I think that's -- that has added to the pressure on President Obama to act.
PAGELet's go to Amman (sp?) calling us from Silver Spring, Md. Hi, you're on the air.
AMMANYes. Thank you for taking my call. You know, when we say that a limited strike against Syria, there is no guarantee that it's going to stay limited. Imagine, for the sake of all of human, that the Syrian military was able to like hit a ship from the American military and sink it. It will be all-out war like with -- when Israel hits Hezbollah a few years ago. Hezbollah were able to hit an Israeli ship in the Mediterranean Sea. They'll sink it, but that's one of the possibility. So it could go for all-out war so there are no guarantees. Thank you for your -- taking my call.
PAGEThanks so much for your call. Is that a risk, Yochi, do you think that even a limited strike, which is what the president talked about, ends up having consequences leading to an escalation we don't expect?
DREAZENYes. And to go back to one of the points Jeremy made, war is hell, but there are also multiple quotes about how war is unpredictable. You have a plan and that plan ends as soon as you hear the first sound of a bullet being fired. It is hard to know exactly what's going to happen, and it's hard to control it.
DREAZENI think part of the messaging here about saying to Assad, this is not about regime change, this is not going to be an effort to get you out of power or to destroy your military, it's to say to him therefore you don't need to retaliate in full force. I think it's very clearly an effort to tamp down the possibility of a major attack like sinking a U.S. destroyer, hitting a U.S. aircraft carrier because I think the caller is right. If that happens, the American response increases exponentially.
BASHAnd part of the strategy here is to deter Assad. What is deterrence? Deterrence is holding at risk something that your adversary values. And I think Yochi's right. Part of this will be a messaging to him to say, here's what we can do, and by the way, here's what else is in our sights. If you break out, if you retaliate, if you go against our allies and partners in the region, we can hit you harder.
PAGEHere's an email from Tiffany who writes us from Kentucky. She says, "The opinion of Beltway journalists is startling." There are two journalists on the panel by the way. But anyway, "None of you seem to understand how fed up American citizens are with military conflicts. Beltway journalists and politicians do not suffer with loss of relatives and friends who are sent to conflicts across the planet. The ordinary American citizen is the one who suffers.
PAGE"Additionally, nothing about Syria and Iran will be quick or easy. It will be expensive for a country that is still in recession and has serious domestic problems. Strategic interest? What about the domestic attitude and disdain for this level of investment?" You know, James, I think a lot of Americans would agree with Tiffany that it's time to focus on how people are weary of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I wonder how much the president's calculation reflects those public attitudes.
GOLDGEIERWell, President Obama understands this very well, and I think all three of us understand this very well. And it's one of the reasons that we've seen him so reluctant to use military force as president. And again, he came in to office vowing to get the United States out of the two wars that it was in, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so he knows as well as anyone that the public is not eager for war.
GOLDGEIEROn the other hand, he's trying to uphold international norms against the use of weapons of mass destruction. He sees American interests at stake in the region, and as commander in chief, he has to take into account those interests. But there's no question it's a very difficult decision for him, and we understand the American people are tired of this. And as the earlier caller suggested, you know, sending troops into a situation is something that no one wants. And the president has been very clear that he's not prepared to send troops into Syria itself.
PAGELast Friday when the president spoke to reporters he said he knew that Americans were weary of war. Nobody was wearier of war, he said, than I am -- the president.
BASHAnd, Susan, the president has gone to Dover Air Base, watched the flag-draped transfer cases of our fallen heroes come off the C-130s. He's had to condole the families of those who've lost loved ones in war. He's been to Arlington, stood at the gravesites of our fallen heroes. So -- and he's handwritten personal letters to every family member of someone who died in combat. So I think he feels this very acutely and very personally.
PAGEAs someone who's watched the president make decisions on these areas up close from the CIA and then the Defense Department, Jeremy, do you think his attitude toward the use of military forces changed from the time he was inaugurated five years ago?
BASHI think he has seen the complexity, and I think he has also concluded that certain operations with just inertia will keep going. He really had to focus on getting us out of Iraq, and there was a lot of pushback, frankly, from the Pentagon and elsewhere to keep a residual force in Iraq. I think there were good arguments on both sides. But he really said, no, at the end of the day, if the Iraqis aren't willing to give certain protections for our troops, we've got to leave.
PAGELet's go to Jabor (sp?) calling us from Orlando, Fla. Thanks for holding on. You're on the air.
JABORMy name is Jabor again. Thanks for taking my call. Most of the points were covered, but I have a couple of really fast points. If we do go in into Syria, aren't we going -- the war's already been going on. We're going in to end the war, not to -- to help end the war not to start a war.
JABORAnd the other thing is I'm really skeptical of all the people that are anti-war. How come nobody came up when Assad, the dictator, has been killing people? Over 125,000 dead, over six million displaced refugees in and out. That's my main question to everybody who's anti-war. How come just whenever the U.S. started saying that we're going to do something about it, everybody came -- became against it?
PAGEAll right. Jabor, thanks for your call.
DREAZENI think that it's one of the questions you hear on the Hill amongst skeptics of chemically -- chemical weapons are horrific. Some of the videos are horrific. It's 1,400 people. There have been single days before this where there have been the deaths of 1,000 or 2,000. There's been horrific imagery from conventional weapons. And you've heard people make the case: If you're dead, it doesn't necessarily matter how you died.
DREAZENI think it's one of the reasons why it gets back to earlier points of why there's such deep skepticism of we've allowed this to go for two years. There have been -- depending on the estimate -- 100,000, 200,000, 300,000 just unimaginable human toll. Why here? And, you know, the president has made the case that there is a red line with chemical weapons given its history in World War I, given its potential use in the future. But I think it's rational for people to wonder why when you've had 300,000 killed, why now? Why not before?
BASHMy I address that, Susan? I think it is important to draw a line at chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. And all right-thinking countries actually subscribe to this notion of the laws of war and that there are actually norms around wars, as strange as that may sound, that you need a conventions as the paradigmatic example.
BASHBut a weapon like a chemical weapon, which is totally indiscriminate, targets civilians as much as it targets military targets and actually causes suffering is thought to be and considered and I think rightly considered an immoral weapon of war. And that's why every country has basically banned its use.
PAGEThe pictures of those children, women, civilians lined up dead were pretty horrific. James.
GOLDGEIERYeah, the pictures are horrific, and the pictures that we've seen over the last two years of the 100,000 killed have also been horrific. The caller suggested that these strikes were designed to end the war, and President Obama has been very clear that that is not the case. These are designed to punish and hopefully deter chemical weapons use, but he has not talked about ending the war. And we could be in a situation like we saw in Iraq in the 1990s where we carried out limited strikes, didn't change the situation, and we ended up with a situation that festered for a long time.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So, Yochi, is it too late for a non-military approach to Syria and the use of chemical weapons?
DREAZENI think so. I think it's hard to image what that would look like. I mean, you've heard the president say that he wants to be a diplomatic solution. But it's difficult to imagine the opposition sitting across the table from any representative of the Assad government just given the brutality of the war over the last two years. One point I'd like to just make quickly, a response to James' point, for a dictator in many parts of the world, all they have to do is survive.
DREAZENAll Assad as to do is survive these strikes, and he can say to his people, I won. The mighty United States hit me, the mighty United States uses military, and here I am still in power. Whether he's been weakened, whether he's been degraded, whether he's had massive resource lost, all he needs to be able to say to his own people and to signal to the region is, I'm still here. I've won. I'm still here. And I think that's one of the major dangers of a limited strike because you'll allow him to do that very easily.
PAGEWhat do you think has been the response in Syria of the rebels who we are backing to the decision to seek congressional authority?
BASHWell, I don't know exactly how Gen. Idris and his forces have taken that. I saw a quote on which he said he supported that, but I think in some ways, he's trying to align himself with the administration. So I don't know, you know, really, how to think through that problem. But I will say just to Yochi's point, I agree that there are enormous complexities to how this may go forward. We undertake military action. Assad could say, hey, I won, or Assad could lash out and retaliate.
BASHAnd I agree with all the commentary that we don't really know precisely in which direction this can go and still doesn't answer the fundamental question which is, what if we do nothing? What if in the face of this horrific chemical attack against -- by Assad against his own citizens, we actually just stay silent and don't do a darn thing? I mean, isn't that ultimately what's going to damage the United States and its interest in the region beyond anything else?
PAGEJames, we're going to have what Jeremy called an epic debate in the next two weeks about what to do. What will you be looking for? Who will you be watching to see how this goes forward?
GOLDGEIERWell, I think it will be an epic debate, and I think overall what we should be looking for, something Yochi talked about earlier, which is the substance of aspect of this debate. How are different wings in the Republican and Democratic Party thinking about the use of military force? I think this is a real moment for us as a country to hear from our leaders about the different ways in which they think military force should or shouldn't be used.
GOLDGEIERAnd I think it's also interesting to see people, like Sen. McCain who've argued for much greater use, who are -- who have been talking about their concerns about an authorization that's too limited.
PAGEAnd, Yochi, what will you be watching for?
DREAZENI think to watch this whether this debate becomes substantive and stays that why or how quickly it becomes pure politics. I think there is an opportunity for this to be historic and really kind of uplifting for a country that's seen Congress do nothing but scorchy political points. If it happens again, it'll be demoralizing. If it's a high-minded debate like it could, it could be in ways very uplifting.
PAGEAnd, Jeremy, let's give you the last word.
BASHWhether America rises to the occasion, our interest are clear, and there are big interests at stake here. And I think this is going to be an important moment for the country.
PAGEMy thanks to Jeremy Bash, Yochi Dreazen and James Goldgeier for joining us this hour in "The Diane Rehm Show." Thanks so much for being with us.
BASHThank you, Susan.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane was on vacation this week. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Casey Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn and Danielle Knight. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is email@example.com. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington, D.C. This is NPR.
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