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Should Obama Seek Congressional and Public Approval Before Action on Syria?

August 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Even if they believe the evidence shows that Syria's Assad regime executed a deadly chemical weapons attack, some lawmakers believe the president should seek congressional approval ahead of any military strike. Jeffrey Brown gets debate on the issue from Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we’re joined by two members of Congress who were briefed by the White House on last week’s chemical attack in Syria, Congressman Eliot Engel from New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Texas Republican Congressman Mac Thornberry, a member of the House Armed Services and Select intelligence committees.

And welcome to both of you.

Eliot Engel, let me start with you. You said you were convinced by the briefing you got. What was the most convincing piece of evidence for you?

REP. ELIOT ENGEL, D-N.Y.: Well, I suspected even before the briefing that the Assad regime was responsible for this because they kept international inspectors out of Syria for four or five days. If you’re wrongly being accused of having these kinds of weapons, you would want the international inspectors to come in to prove that you have been falsely accused.

The fact that they kept them out, I think, just speaks legends about the fact that Assad’s forces were guilty. But the thing that we were told was that there were interceptions of high-level Syrian authority, and in those interceptions, they admitted to doing this and to using these chemical weapons.

And then there were certain movements of Syrian personnel before the suburbs of Damascus were actually hit with the gas. So it convinced me. I think it’s logical. I don’t think there’s any kind of doubt. I think Secretary Kerry made a very compelling case today, and I think what the president says is also very compelling.

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JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mac Thornberry, you heard the same evidence. Were you convinced?

REP. MAC THORNBERRY, R-Tex.: Sure.

But I think most of us believe that Assad has used chemical weapons a month ago or two months ago, because the evidence has been accumulating over time. This particular attack a week or so ago, I think, was on a larger scale than we have seen before. And I think the evidence is clear. So the White House point was, the evidence is clear, and, secondly, we need to do something about it.

But it’s that what you do about it, of course, that gets into all these other questions.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so express your concerns about what happens next.

MAC THORNBERRY: Well, the White House point was that we need to do something about it first to preserve the president’s credibility because he said there’s a red line. And, secondly, we need to do something about it to deter future use of chemical weapons we Assad or by anybody else.

So I think it’s incumbent upon the president to go to Congress and the American people and explain exactly what he wants to do and how it will achieve those objectives. Just the desire to do something for these atrocities, which are horrible, is not enough.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re saying he has not done that yet as far as…

MAC THORNBERRY: He has…

JEFFREY BROWN: No?

MAC THORNBERRY: He has not. And none of those questions were answered.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Eliot Engel, what about that?

ELIOT ENGEL: Well, I think the War Powers Act gives the president the latitude to strike first and then go to Congress within 60 days.

This is precedent of past American presidents. Ronald Reagan did it in Grenada, and it was done in Panama by the first President Bush. It was done in Kosovo by President Clinton. It was done in Libya by President Obama. This has happened before. As long as there is consultance with Congress, as long as there are discussions, I think it’s clear that the president does have the right to make a move, and if it’s more than 60 days, he needs to come to Congress.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me…

ELIOT ENGEL: The people who have accused the president through these many months of doing nothing are now accusing him when he wants to do something of not doing the right thing at all.

So I think the president is put in a position of being damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. I trust the president. I like the president. I think he’s doing the right thing. We cannot allow thugs like Assad to gas his own people. It’s war crimes, and we can talk about it until we turn blue, but it’s time to do something about it. And if America has the gumption to do it, well, I think that speaks legends about our country and what we stand for.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mac Thornberry, first, do you dispute that the president has the legal authority to act now?

MAC THORNBERRY: I think it depends on how he intends to act.

But, actually, I think there’s a bigger issue. Rather than debating about the provisions of a particular law, I think it is important for the country that the president express why this is important, what he intends to do about it, what his authorities are, and come to Congress ahead of time.

And part of the reason is you just hear a list of things that the president says, we’re not going to do this, we’re not going to do that. They seem to want to have a very narrow sort of military action. But you can’t limit these sorts of things to just a couple of cruise missiles, necessarily. This may escalate. Iran may retaliate.

There may be all sort of things, and the president will be so much better off, the country will be so much better off if he comes and has a fuller debate and get Congress’ agreement with taking action here, rather than a few conference calls which seems to kind of get the feel of a check-the-box mentality.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were with constituents in Texas over the last couple of days.

MAC THORNBERRY: I was.

JEFFREY BROWN: What are you hearing? Are you hearing concern?

MAC THORNBERRY: Absolutely. Yesterday, I had two town hall meetings. The top two questions were, why does Syria matter to us and can — how can we trust the president?

Now, I represent a different area that Eliot does. But the point is, he — this is the time to be the president of all the people, and convince all of the people that this is in our national interest. And, so far, he hasn’t done that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eliot Engel, has the administration explained its position adequately? That seems to be one of the issues here.

ELIOT ENGEL: Well, I don’t disagree with Mac. I think the president has to come before the American people.

I think what we saw Secretary Kerry do today was the start of that. I think the president, if he acts — and I believe he will — will explain what he’s doing to the American people. I think this will be limited in scope, and it will be done to show Assad that the gassing of his own people is not acceptable. This is a war crime.

Those pictures of those children foaming at the mouth and dying is something that will live in my mind for the rest of my life. I just think there are certain things that are unacceptable. And this is one of them. And the United States stands for something. I commend the president for action. I think he does need to discuss this with the American people. And I think he will.

JEFFREY BROWN: You said, Mac Thornberry, earlier talking about the president’s credibility being on the line. Secretary Kerry said it was the United States’ credibility on the line. Do you not accept that, and the question of, if not us, then who?

(CROSSTALK)

MAC THORNBERRY: No, they’re clearly connected. And we can rehash whether the president should have said there is a red line and so forth.

But the argument that was made in the call today by the administration is that the president’s credibility is on the line. And it is absolutely true. If the world doubts our president’s credibility, our nation stands at greater risk because a variety of factors will push and test. And that is absolutely part of the danger that we’re in.

Some people say he’s backed himself into a corner. And, obviously, all of us have to live with the consequences of that. But that doesn’t relieve him of the responsibility to persuade Congress and the American people that he has specific military objectives to accomplish those — the goals that he sets, and that he is capable of dealing not only with those, but with the possible repercussions that could come from any military action.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, in a word, you do not think that something should happen within the next days, until the president comes to the Congress?

MAC THORNBERRY: I think the president has a lot more work to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Eliot Engel, brief last word from you?

ELIOT ENGEL: Well, I don’t think this thing can be played out indefinitely.

I think that there’s clear evidence that gas was used, and if we do nothing or if we fiddle and faddle and wait weeks and weeks, it will tell every despot in the world, every dictator, every terrorist organization that they can commit a mass murder, that they can commit war crimes with impunity, and no one is going to say anything. We’re all going to be talking and talking and not acting.

I support the president in acting. I think he’s doing a good thing, and I think we all should get around him.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Eliot Engel, Mac Thornberry, thank you both very much.

ELIOT ENGEL: Thank you.