In a Labor Day conference call with 127 House Democrats, Secretary of State John Kerry invoked an apocalyptic scenario, summoning visions of American power and credibility incinerated in a terrible Middle East-wide conflagration laced with nerve gas and enriched uranium.
An aide to one of the members of Congress who participated in the call told me that Kerry warned that the failure to punish Bashar Al-Assad for using chemical weapons on Syrian civilians could lead to future chemical attacks on Israel and Turkey, emboldening Iran to forge ahead with an alleged nuclear weapons program and perhaps even enter the battlefield in support of Syria. Next, Kerry hammered on the Holocaust, declaring that the US faced a “Munich moment” on Syria.
The member of Congress, a staunch opponent of a US strike on Syria, described Kerry’s pitch as an updated rendition of the Vietnam-era domino theory, which held that if South Vietnam fell, communism would spread across Southeast Asia. “By the end Kerry was practically telling us the Earth was going to fall into the Sun,” the member of Congress commented to aides afterwards.
Since the administration briefing on Sunday focusing on new evidence of Syrian army deployment of sarin gas, even the most skeptical members of Congress have accepted that chemical weapons were used in the attacks around Ghouta on August 21. During Kerry’s conference call, Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan challenged the Secretary to conclusively prove that units of the Syrian army fired the sarin gas shells in Ghouta. A heated change reportedly erupted between the two.
Other congressional skeptics have complained about the exceptionally broad language contained in the use-of-force draft resolution presented to them by the White House. Conceived without any input from Congress, the resolution authorized the President to use the military in virtually any way he saw fit to prevent chemical weapons attacks on Syrians, the US or American allies. And it contained no timeline, geographic limitations, or specific wording on the kind of military action the President could authorize.
By tailoring the resolution as broadly as possible, the White House may have reasoned that Democrats needed a chance to stage a harrumphing protest in front of their constituents, demanding promises of “surgical strikes” that would not require American boots on the ground. Having been ensured adequate political cover and the sense that they acted with caution, the lawmakers could then sign off on a revised resolution, authorizing force in good conscience.
Senate leaders have already begun drafting a new document that constrains Obama to a 60-day timeline for “narrow, limited” missile strikes. The language in the revised resolution might win over enough skeptics to grant the White House the political victory it desperately needs. But it does little to guarantee that American force will not rapidly escalate if the initial round of “limited” strikes is deemed ineffective.