The Cable

Kerry: It’s time to give up on Assad the reformer

Now that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has proven that he has no problem killing peaceful protesters in the streets, some of the most prominent advocates of engaging with the Assad regime are rethinking their views. That list now includes Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), who told The Cable today that he no longer believed the Syrian regime was willing to reform.

Kerry, who has served as Congress's point man on engaging the Syrian regime, told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as recently as March 16 -- shortly after the current uprising had begun -- that he still expected Assad to embrace political reform and move toward more engagement with America and its allies.

"[M]y judgment is that Syria will move; Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it," said Kerry, who has met with Assad six times over the past two years.

But in an exclusive interview today, Kerry said he no longer saw the Syrian government as willing to reform. "He obviously is not a reformer now," he said, while also defending his previous stance. "I've always said the top goal of Assad is to perpetuate his own regime."

When pressed by The Cable about his earlier, rosier view of Assad, Kerry denied he had expected the Syrian regime would come around.

"I said there was a chance he could be a reformer if certain things were done. I wasn't wrong about if those things were done. They weren't done," Kerry said.  "I didn't hold out hope. I said there were a series of things that if he engaged in them, there was a chance he would be able to produce a different paradigm. But he didn't."

"I said we have to put him to the test. I've always said it's a series of tests," Kerry said. "The chance was lost and that's the end of it."

In light of the current crackdown, during which over 700 Syrians have lost their lives and thousands more have been arrested, Kerry admitted that the ship has sailed for U.S. engagement with the Assad regime.

"We can't [continue to engage] right now," he said. "This is an egregious situation. There are a lot of human rights abuses and we have to respond appropriately."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to point to Capitol Hill when asked why the administration ever believed that the Syrian government could be peeled away from its alliance with Iran or would pursue a path toward greater freedom and democracy for its people.

"Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer," she said March 27. And on May 6, she stated that the Syrian regime has "an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda."

However, Kerry's about-face suggests that the administration's allies in Congress have no interest in taking the fall for the administration's optimism regarding Syria. Meanwhile, those in the Senate who have always seen Assad as a despotic and cruel leader are claiming vindication.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable on Tuesday that lawmakers' contention that Assad could be a reformer was "one of the great delusionary views in recent foreign policy history."

"It wasn't just Kerry, it was a whole lot of people, first of all the administration," McCain said.

Two other top Democrats continued to defend the two-year drive to engage the Syrian government in interviews with The Cable on Tuesday.

"Even Qaddafi looked like a reformer for a while and he gave up his nukes. So things flip around pretty quickly in the Middle East," said Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). "Assad sure doesn't look like a reformer today."

Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said Assad still has a chance to do the right thing.

"I don't think Syria has shaken out yet, I don't think we know what Assad will or won't do.... I wouldn't be overly optimistic," she said.

Feinstein also sounded a cautious note about Washington's ability to pressure Syria to choose a path toward reform.

"I don't think we can be everyone's keeper. We've got five nations under active civil war in the Middle East now and I don't know that we can be telling every one of them what they should or shouldn't do," she said. "If they're not going to listen to their own people, it seems to me that we're not going to make much of a difference."

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The Cable

Senate has no plans to invoke War Powers Act over Libya

In just over a week, 60 days will have passed since the war in Libya began. But Congress has no plans to exercise its rights under the War Powers Act to either approve or stop the administration's use of U.S. military forces to fight the army of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi.

The War Powers Resolution of 1973 allows the president to commit U.S. forces for 60 days without the explicit authorization of Congress, with another 30 days allowed for the withdrawal of those forces.

"The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to a declaration of war, a specific statutory authorization, or a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces," the law states.

But the administration won't be immediately pressed to follow the law if nobody in Congress intends to enforce it. Both leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told The Cable on Tuesday that there are no plans for Senate action on the war in Libya -- before or after the deadline.

"I'm not hearing from my colleagues that they feel the War Powers situation is currently in play because we're deferring to NATO," committee chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable. Kerry had been working on a resolution with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) but the text was never finalized.

Kerry said there's nothing on the schedule either in his committee, where a resolution based on the War Powers Act would have to originate, or on the Senate floor. "I'm certainly prepared to listen and be responsive," if senators want to debate the war, he said.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), the committee's ranking Republican, told The Cable he also doesn't see any action on the horizon, but he called on the Senate to start conducting oversight of the war and demanding more details from the Obama administration.

"I'm one who believes that there does need to accountability, if not a declaration of war under the War Powers Act, at least some specific resolution that would give authority," Lugar said. "But even absent that, some definition from the president of what our plan is, what our metrics would be, and by this time what the costs have been, quite apart from the estimate of what they will be."

Asked if the president is legally required to begin ending U.S. military involvement when the 60-day window closes, Lugar said it's a possibility.

"That is certainly one strong interpretation of this. I'll examine that when we come to it," he said. "The War Powers Act has been argued through several administrations as to whether the president feels bound by it or not."

Overall, he and many others in the Senate lament that the budget debate and other issues have pushed the Libya discussion to the back burner.

"There has never has been the correct focus on Libya with regard to congressional hearings or congressional debate," Lugar said.