The Cable

Debate over Syria intervention takes shape

Top administration officials, leading lawmakers, and GOP presidential candidates have all weighed in on Sen. John McCain's proposal to launch U.S.-led airstrikes to halt the violence in Syria, but there is still no consensus on the costs and benefits of entangling the U.S. military in another armed conflict.

"Just as was the case with Libya, there is a broad consensus among regional leaders and organizations on the preferred outcome in Syria: Assad and his cronies must go. There is not, however, a consensus about how this goal could be achieved," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) said at Wednesday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Levin didn't say whether he was for or against a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria, but he warned of the risks and talked about the possible impact on the region.

McCain was more clear, repeating his call for foreign air power to be used against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, and calling for the immediate arming of the Syrian opposition -- hopefully with international cooperation from Arab partners and European allies.

"It is understandable that the administration is reluctant to move beyond diplomacy and sanctions. Unfortunately, this policy is increasingly disconnected from the dire conditions on the ground in Syria, which has become a full state of armed conflict," McCain said.

He urged Panetta to remember his time as White House chief of staff during the NATO intervention in Bosnia and quoted President Bill Clinton as saying at the time, "There are times and places where our leadership can mean the difference between peace and war and where we can defend our fundamental values as a people and serve our most basic strategic interests.  There are still times when America and America alone can and should make the difference for peace."

McCain also quoted CENTCOM chief Gen. James Mattis, who testified Tuesday that "Assad is clearly achieving what he wants to achieve" that his military campaign is "gaining physical momentum on the battlefield." Mattis also noted that Assad's downfall would be "the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years." 

In his testimony, Panetta clearly ruled out any unilateral military action by the United States in Syria, but he left the door wide open to a multilateral mission inside Syria at some later date. Yesterday, President Barack Obama said that no option in Syria has been taken off the table.

"We are reviewing all possible additional steps that can be taken with our international partners to support the efforts to protect the Syrian people, to end the violence, and ensure regional stability, including potential military options, if necessary," Panetta said. "Currently, the administration is focusing on diplomatic and political approaches rather than military intervention."

"We need to have a clear legal basis for any action that we take. For us to act unilaterally would be a mistake," Panetta said. "Can it happen today? Can it happen now? No. It's gonna take some work; it's going to take some time. But when we do it, we'll do it right. We will not do it in a way that will make the situation worse. That's what we have to be careful of."

Dempsey said the Pentagon has planned for several possible military actions in Syria, including delivering humanitarian relief, imposing a no-fly zone, conducting maritime interdiction, establishing humanitarian corridors, and executing limited air strikes. He said the planning was at a "commander's estimate level of detail," and that there had been briefing to the National Security Council staff but not the president directly.

"As you know, we're extraordinarily capable and we can do just about anything we're asked to do," Dempsey said. "The ability to do a single raid-like strike would be accessible to us. The ability to do a longer-term sustained campaign would be challenging, and would have to be made in the context of other commitments around the globe."

Dempsey also confirmed elements of The Cable's Tuesday story on Syria, including the fact that Russia continues to arm the Syrian regime, including with advanced air defense systems.

Panetta said he believed that NATO should start debating the issue of a military intervention in Syria. That discussion so far has not begun in Brussels, according to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Panetta also said the Pentagon will not begin planning for a Syria intervention in detail until directed to do so by the president.

"I don't think there's any question that we're experiencing mass atrocities there," Panetta added.

Yesterday, several top Republican politicians declined to go along with McCain's call for airstrikes on Syria now, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).

In a short interview Tuesday, McCain said that didn't bother him one bit.

"I couldn't care less," McCain said. "I know the difference between right and wrong. I know that people are being slaughtered as we speak."

"I refer back to Bosnia and Kosovo. Under President Clinton, we acted although there were Republicans strongly opposed to that. I think it turned out well."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who joined McCain's call for airstrikes along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), told The Cable Tuesday that he preferred a multilateral military intervention in Syria over a unilateral strike.

"The Arab League is the right vehicle," said Graham. "If they request air support I'm willing to be part of the team. But I want the Arab League and the international community to be deeply involved and I want it to be to stop the slaughter."

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Kerry to Romney: You don’t know Iran

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) took to the Senate floor Tuesday to pick apart Mitt Romney's latest op-ed on Iran.

"The United States cannot afford to let Iran acquire nuclear weapons. Yet under Barack Obama, that is the course we are on," Romney wrote in Tuesday's Washington Post. "As president, I would move America in a different direction."

Romney said he would increase the Navy's shipbuilding rate from 9 to 15 ships per year and pledged to "press forward" with ballistic missile-defense systems aimed at Iran and North Korea. He also promised to press for "ever-tightening sanctions," to speak out in support of democracy in Iran, visit Jerusalem on his first trip as president, place aircraft carrier groups in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, and increase coordination with Israel.

"Most important, I will buttress my diplomacy with a military option that will persuade the ayatollahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Only when they understand that at the end of that road lies not nuclear weapons but ruin will there be a real chance for a peaceful resolution," Romney wrote. "Either the ayatollahs will get the message, or they will learn some very painful lessons about the meaning of American resolve."

Kerry said on the floor today that Romney's op-ed troubled him and he said Romney's attack on the administration's Iran policy was "as inaccurate as it was aggressive." The timing of the op-ed, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington, was additionally unfortunate, in Kerry's view.

"We should all remember that the nuclear issue with Iran is deadly serious business that should invite sobriety and serious-minded solutions, not sloganeering and sound bites. This can't become just another applause line on the Republican presidential stump," Kerry said. "Talk has consequences, and idle talk of war only helps Iran by spooking the tight oil market and increasing the price of the Iranian crude that pays for its nuclear program. And to create false differences with the president just to score political points does nothing to move Iran off a dangerous nuclear course."

"Worst of all, Governor Romney's op-ed does not even do readers the courtesy of describing how a President Romney would do anything different from what the Obama administration has already done," Kerry said. "Just look at this op-ed. From his opening paragraphs, Romney garbles history."

Kerry disputed Romney's assertion that President Jimmy Carter's efforts to negotiate the release of U.S. hostages in Iran in 1981 was "feckless," and his claim that Obama was the most "feckless" president since Carter, considering he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

"I don't know if Governor Romney has checked the definition of the word ‘feckless' lately, but that ain't it," Kerry said.

Kerry then goes point by point through Romney's op-ed to argue that Obama has basically the same Iran policy Romney is proposing. Kerry even quotes Ambassador Nick Burns, President George W. Bush's lead negotiator on Iran, who said, "The attacks on Obama basically say, ‘He's weak and we're strong.' But when you look at the specifics, you don't see any difference."

"So when you add it all up, Mitt Romney is just trying to ignore, twist, and distort the administration's policy to drive a wedge in our politics," Kerry said. "We're going to have a bruising election season. And so we should. That's how we decide big issues in the United States. We always have. But let's have an honest debate, not a contrived one. Governor Romney can debate the man in the White House instead of inventing straw men on the op-ed pages."

Obama himself criticized the GOP presidential candidates for their rhetoric on the possibility of a war with Iran during his press conference today.

"You know, those folks don't have a lot of responsibilities. They're not commander in chief. And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I'm reminded of the costs involved in war. I'm reminded that the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle and the impact that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy," Obama said.

"This is not a game. And there's nothing casual about it. And, you know, when I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk, but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we've been doing over the last three years, it indicates to me that that's more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem."

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