Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy says the evidence of the Syria regime’s use of chemical weapons is convincing, but the administration faces a Congress worried about military intervention.
Sen. Leahy was among many in Congress who returned from vacation for yesterday’s classified intelligence briefing where top White House officials presented the evidence on Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The White House also sent a draft resolution to Congress seeking authority for military action against Syria.
Sen. Leahy told Here & Now that he is among many who believe that draft is too open ended, saying that as written, “it could allow anything, including heavy military action — not only in Syria but in other parts of the region.”
He added that there are so many Democrats and Republicans voicing similar concerns that “it’s inevitable there will be changes.”
Leahy says the White House will face its “biggest hurdle if it appears that we are going it alone,” in Syria, and that Congress will be asking, “is it going to change things if the United States gets involved, and how long and how thoroughly will we be involved?”
Leahy says he was one of the minority who voted against the Iraq War, because he did not believe the evidence presented then.
“Now, a lot of these senators who voted to go to war in Iraq wish they hadn’t. They realize it cost us a couple of trillion dollars, and nothing was gained by it. That experience, just like the experience a generation ago with Vietnam, makes a lot of senators very very wary.”
- Patrick Leahy, U.S. Senator for Vermont since 1975. He’s the longest serving Democrat in the U.S. Senate, and chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. He tweets @SenatorLeahy.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
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I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. Coming up, making the case for bringing back some form of the citizen soldier.
HOBSON: But first, President Obama is meeting with lawmakers today, trying to make the case for congressional authorization of military action against Syria. The White House has sent a draft resolution to Congress. And top administration officials led a classified briefing on Capitol Hill yesterday to present evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, with many high-ranking lawmakers coming back from vacation to attend.
Meanwhile there are calls for the U.K. government to go back to parliament with a new proposal for intervention in Syria after the British government lost a vote last week. Joining us now is Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the longest-serving Democrat in the Senate and someone who was at yesterday's classified briefing. Senator Leahy, thanks for joining us.
SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: Happy to be with you.
HOBSON: Well, you say that the president's proposal for authorization of military force in Syria is too open-ended. What do you mean by that?
LEAHY: It is open-ended enough that it could allow anything, including heavy military action, not only in Syria but in other parts of the region. One of the things that I hope the Congress has learned after the fiasco of Iraq is that these kind of open-ended resolutions means that Congress has no oversight, but also means that there's no control over what might happen.
HOBSON: Do you expect that you'll be able to change the resolution, that the president will be willing to accept a narrower scope of - for the potential for military action?
LEAHY: There are so many people, both Democrats and Republicans, who have voiced the same concerns I did, that I think it's inevitable there will be changes.
HOBSON: How big of a hurdle does the president and the administration face in Congress, and what does the White House need to do to convince members who are still on the fence or perhaps against the idea of U.S. military action in Syria?
LEAHY: I think you start off by most people who have watched and read the intelligence, and I have over the past several days, that there was nerve gas used. And all indications are it came from the regime. That part is the lesser hurdle for the White House.
The next question is, can we and should we be involved? I think that the biggest hurdle the president will have is if it appears that we're going this alone. Was nerve gas used? Was poison gas used? Yes. Is it going to change things if the United States gets involved? And how long and how thoroughly will we be involved? That's going to be the big debate.
HOBSON: And are you hearing reports that there might be another vote in the U.K. on the use of force? Would that be helpful to the United States in terms of not going it alone, as you say?
LEAHY: I think it might be helpful. I'm actually going to be meeting with some British parliamentarians later this week. I know this is going to be a major part of the discussion. But you do have the problem of we saw what happened in Iraq. I was one of less than a couple dozen in the Senate who voted against the war in Iraq, and that's because I actually read the intelligence.
I thought that the claims being made, especially by Vice President Cheney, were false. They could not be sustained. It was not a reason to go to war. And now a lot of the senators who voted to go to war in Iraq wish they hadn't. They realize it's cost us a couple trillion dollars, and nothing was gained by it.
That experience, just like the experience a generation ago with Vietnam, makes a lot of senators very, very wary.
HOBSON: Senator, what would be the goal of military action? Is it really about dismantling Syria's ability to use chemical weapons, or is this about sending a message to Iran or Hezbollah, as it's been reported?
LEAHY: You ask the perfect question. I don't think there's a perfect answer, and that's going to be really part of the debate. What do we accomplish by this? Is it horrible what happened? Of course it is. But so were the deaths of tens of thousands before that. You know, the United States is not always consistent.
When Iraq killed tens of thousands of people by gas during the Reagan administration, President Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld over to tell Saddam Hussein don't worry, we're on your side because you're opposed to Iran. And then we went ahead and sold weapons to Iran in Iran-contra.
We're not seen as the most consistent figure over there, and I think that what worries a lot of people, we don't know what the endgame is. We don't know what we will accomplish by this. And we don't know whether we just unravel further.
HOBSON: If Congress votes no, and the president decides he wants to use military force anyway, would that be something that would be possible, in your view, or is that illegal?
LEAHY: Well, why don't we cross that bridge when we come to it?
Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, thank you so much for talking with us.
HOBSON: Good to be with you, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.