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Sen. Susan Collins: Syria Diplomatic Solution Should Be ‘Aggressively Pursued’

September 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has been courted by the White House for support on a military strike against Syria for using chemical weapons. Gwen Ifill talks to Collins about the prospect and challenges of working towards a diplomatic solution with Russia, as well as her concerns about using military force.

GWEN IFILL: Maine’s Republican Senator Susan Collins attended the lunch meeting with the president today, and a dinner at Vice President Joe Biden’s home Sunday night, as the administration courted her vote.

Senator Collins, welcome.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, R-Maine: Nothing.

GWEN IFILL: Unfortunately, we seem not to the have Senator Collins’ audio.

Can you hear me, Senator?


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SUSAN COLLINS: I wasn’t getting anything for a few seconds there.

GWEN IFILL: Well, thank you for joining us.

We have just heard House Speaker John Boehner talk about the choice between diplomacy and military action. Is that what you see as the choice right now?


Initially, what the administration was presenting was a choice between a military strike that was an act of war and doing nothing. And it troubles me that we were ignoring the possibility of a diplomatic solution.

The last couple of days have put a diplomatic solution on the table, and I believe it should be a aggressively pursued.

GWEN IFILL: Senator, do you think that Russia is a worthy ally in that pursuit?

SUSAN COLLINS: You know, I understand those who say we can’t trust the Russians.

But the fact is that it is in the Russian’s own self-interest to defuse this crisis. So I believe that we should allow some time for this to play out to see if the Russians, who are, after all, the chief ally for Assad, can, indeed, cause him to turn over his stockpile of chemical weapons to the United Nations or some other international organization.

Without Russian weapons, money and support, Assad would be gone. So it is the Russians that have the ability to influence the Syrian regime in a way that really no other country does, except for Iran. And Iran is a very unlikely partner.

GWEN IFILL: Well, the outstanding questions I have heard today, Senator, is whether the United Nations is the correct venue for this and whether it’s even enforceable, that you could find where all the chemical weapons is, move them somewhere where they could be monitored or controlled, and whether, even if everybody says it’s a great idea, it can happen.

SUSAN COLLINS: I’m not saying that this will be easy, but certainly it is preferable to launching a military strike on a country that has not attacked us.

Certainly, it is preferable for us to try to get the chemical stockpiles, which may be the largest in the world, out of Syria, so that it can no longer be used to harm and kill innocent civilians.

And I would say that it has been done before. Libya did give up some of its nuclear capability. So we have precedent for the United Nations being able to take control of stockpiles of dangerous weapons.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Collins, you have been — you have gotten the president’s best argument on this idea of a military strike, both in lunch at the vice — dinner at the vice president’s and lunch on Capitol Hill today. What is the your biggest objection to the idea of a military strike, if that — if you had decided that you are objecting, that is?

SUSAN COLLINS: My biggest concern is that we will be dragged into yet another war in the Middle East and become entangled in a protracted, dangerous, and ugly civil war, where it’s very difficult to sort out who are the good guys, particularly at this point, when we have the terrorist group Hezbollah helping the Assad regime, which has shown how ruthless it is, and the opposition includes elements of two different groups that are affiliated with al-Qaida.

I don’t think this would end with one military strike. And I’m very wary of the United States being dragged into a protracted civil war in Syria.

GWEN IFILL: Do you think, having heard the president’s case for war and the president’s case for diplomacy, that he had this in his hip pocket for a while, that he had all along been using the military strike option as a way of pressuring Congress and pressuring Russia?

SUSAN COLLINS: I actually don’t, because the very first conference call that we had on this issue during Labor Day weekend, when Secretary Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice were briefing us, there was no discussion of anything other than a military strike.

And thus I do not think that the administration was actively pursuing other diplomatic means behind the scenes. Now, I’m not sure of that, but certainly, initially, they were not. I think now they genuinely are. And I certainly hope that they will be successful and it will avert any further discussion of a military strike.

GWEN IFILL: If they genuinely are now, do you think it’s because of the pressure and the reluctance that the American people and the Senate and the House have brought to bear?

SUSAN COLLINS: I do. I think the president’s plan initially was to launch a strike without even coming to Congress for approval.

When it was evident that that would have created an uproar from the American people and from members of Congress, he decided to go to us for approval, as he should under the Constitution. That in turn allowed for more time for these other alternatives to be put forth by the Russians.

GWEN IFILL: You don’t think that the president has been talking about this all along, as he said, with Vladimir Putin, then?

SUSAN COLLINS: Well, I don’t mean to doubt the president if he says that he has had discussions with Mr. Putin. He may well have during the recent conference.

But certainly the public debate that was being presented to Congress and indeed the actual resolution that the administration sent up to Congress for consideration simply authorized a military strike. And it was extremely broad in its scope. And there was no language in it about first trying to pursue a diplomatic solution.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, thanks for joining us.