The Cable

Obama Administration Still Won't Reveal Its Coalition of the Willing

As President Barack Obama cancels a two-day trip to Los Angeles to shore up congressional support for a military strike against Syria, the administration remains tight lipped about one thing that might convince some lawmakers to support the intervention: the names of countries that have made clear they would join the United States in an attack. The lack of transparency has led some to question the purported size of the White House's coalition.

For the past week, Secretary of State John Kerry and top Democrats -- including DNC head Debbie Wasserman Schultz have said "dozens" of countries have agreed to participate in an attack against Syria.

"I think we're at about 34 countries have indicated that if the allegations are true, that they would support some form of action against Syria," Kerry said Tuesday.

"In both military and diplomatic and political support, there are dozens of nations who had committed to back us up," Wasserman Schultz said earlier this week, citing classified briefings.

Both officials said they could not reveal a complete list of the countries willing to participate militarily, and when asked, Kerry could only name a handful of countries such as Turkey and France. At her daily briefing on Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was repeatedly asked about the makeup of the U.S. coalition, but could only name nine who "publicly and explicitly expressed support for U.S. military action": Australia, Albania, Kosovo, Canada, Denmark, France, Poland, Romania, and Turkey. Those countries have not necessarily pledged to support the mission militarily, but Psaki said at least 10 countries have, though she couldn't name them.

To the undecided lawmakers on the Hill, that's a big problem.

"I don't see anyone else using any military at all," Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Cable. "We don't have NATO, we don't have the Arab League, we don't have the United Nations. This is an international violation, therefore it needs an international response." Meeks, like others, said he wants the U.S. to build more international support for a strike before he signs off.

Chances for a resolution passing in the Senate next week look good, but it's less certain in the House where a coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative and libertarian Republicans have shown unease about authorizing military force. A number of ad hoc whip counts in the media show more votes against military action than in support, but House aides from both parties say those charts are misleading because there's little incentive for members of Congress to declare they'll vote "yes" at this early stage. "Of course you're not going to say yes right now," one aide told The Cable. "If you're a Democrat, you'll rile up your liberal base. If you're Republican, you'll rile up your conservative base."

In order to allay lawmakers' concerns, administration officials have used a range of indicators to suggest international support for a Syria strike. Many of these indicators have been expressions that don't include military commitments.

"We've had some 53 nations or countries and organizations have acknowledged that chemical weapons were used here and have condemned it publicly," Kerry said on Tuesday. "Thirty-one nations have stated publicly that the Assad regime is responsible. And I think we're at about 34 countries have indicated that if the allegations are true, that they would support some form of action against Syria.... The Arab League countries have condemned this. A number of them have asked to be part of a military operation."

At Thursday's briefing, Psaki told reporters to keep in mind the number of behind-the-scenes discussions going on. "Obviously, there are a lot of private discussions that take place," she said." This is a work in progress. We're still consulting with other countries, we're still briefing other countries."

The Cable

Congressional Black Caucus Instructed to Hold Tongue on Syria

As an increasing number of African-American lawmakers voice dissent over the Obama administration's war plans in Syria, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has asked members to "limit public comment" on the issue until they are briefed by senior administration officials.

A congressional aide to a CBC member called the request "eyebrow-raising," in an interview with The Cable, and said the request was designed to quiet dissent while shoring up support for President Obama's Syria strategy.

The CBC, a crucial bloc of more than 40 votes the White House likely needs to authorize a military strike in Syria, is scheduled to be briefed by White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice on Monday. Until then, CBC chairwoman Marcia Fudge has asked colleagues to "limit public comment until [they] receive additional details," Fudge spokeswoman Ayofemi Kirby told The Cable.

When asked if the White House requested the partial gag order, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said "the Administration is reaching out to all Members to ensure they have the information they need to make an informed judgment on this issue." Kirby said it was her boss's request and was aimed at keeping members informed rather than silencing anti-war members.

In recent days, a number of black lawmakers from Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) to Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) have expressed skepticism over the administration's plan to wage a surgical military strike in Syria. "We must learn the lessons of the past. Lessons from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and others," said Lee, who remains opposed to a Syrian intervention.

"If I felt for one minute that my nation was in danger, and I'm 83, I would volunteer and do something to protect her," Rangel told The Cable on Wednesday. "But I'll be damned if I see anything worth fighting for."

Last week, Lee circulated a letter signed by 64 Democrats, including many members of the CBC, demanding congressional authorization for a strike in Syria.

"The Syria vote is splitting the party and from the CBC point of view, it's very sensitive," said the aide. "I think where they were coming from is ‘OK, I know you're against military engagement, however, before you go public opposing involvement, wait and give us some time to convince you why we need to support the president.'"

Despite the request, some CBC members have felt compelled to let constituents know where they stand on an issue consuming the public's attentions. "It's my obligation to speak out and say what my thought process is," Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), a member of the CBC and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Cable. "I think it's important for me to step forward and make some statements. These are very personal matters."

Meeks said he's currently undecided on Syria and wants to see the White House build an international coalition before he authorizes a strike. "This is an international violation, therefore it it needs an international response," he said. "We don't have NATO, we don't have the Arab League, we don't have the U.N."

While Meeks remains open to White House arguments, others say they could never be convinced of another war in the Middle East. "Enough is enough," said Rangel. "I don't see how I could be persuaded."

The House remains the most difficult battleground for the White House in its quest for military authorization. On Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed on a resolution allowing the president to carry out a strike within a 60-day period, with a 30-day extension. The House Foreign Affairs Committee, meanwhile, remains split with its Republican chairman concerned that a limited strike could turn into an escalation.

"The president promises a military operation in Syria of limited scope and duration," Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) said Wednesday. "But the Assad regime would have a say in what happens next."

If a resolution to authorize military force fails to pass in the House, it will likely be due to an odd pairing of conservative and libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats, including Congressional Black Caucus members. When asked if his constituents had any appetite for a war with Syria, Rangel replied bluntly. "In answer to your question: Hell no."