Debating Syria: Congress steps up

Whatever one thinks of the president’s decision to seek authorization for military force in Syria, one thing is clear: The hearings that took place on Capitol Hill this week have been among the most intelligent we have seen in years. For the most part, senators from both sides of the aisle asked thoughtful questions and proclaimed support and skepticism based on their analysis of the facts rather than partisan battle lines.

Although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing had the feel of a family reunion — Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are both former senators making their case to friends and former colleagues — it was far from a rubber-stamp session. Senators were polite, and even jovial, but raised thorny issues: What would the Obama administration do if Syrian President Bashar Assad were to retaliate against a US strike by launching another chemical attack on his own people? How would Russia, a strong ally of Assad, respond to a US strike on Damascus? Is a limited strike worth the effort?

In the end, the committee voted 10 to 7 to give Obama authorization to strike. Three Republicans joined seven Democrats to support the president’s request, while two Democrats and five Republicans opposed it.


The most conspicuous vote came from Edward Markey, the Massachusetts senator recently elected to fill Kerry’s seat. Markey declined to take a side — he voted “present” — but nonetheless provided a service by asking a series of illuminating questions of Kerry, in what must have been an awkward moment for them both. Among them: Wouldn’t it be wise to wait for the report of UN arms inspectors before acting? (Kerry said the United States already has sufficient proof of a chemical attack.)

Addressing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, Markey asked if a military strike would actually increase Russia’s support of Assad. “It could,” Dempsey responded. “There are always unintended consequences.” Let’s hope that such questions shine a spotlight on weaknesses in US strategy, and push the Obama administration to improve on its plan.