Following President Obama’sSaturdayannouncement that he will seek Congressional authorization to retaliate against the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons against its own people, The Daily Princetonian spoke briefly by phone to U.S. Representative Rush Holt, a former arms control expert for the State Department, to discuss his position on the Obama administration’s case for intervention in Syria. Holt explained that, in his view, a compelling case had not yet been made for intervention and that U.S. action must happen within a multilateral framework.
The Daily Princetonian: The White House presented its case for limited military intervention in Syria in a conference call with congressional leaderson Thursdayevening, drawing on assessments by top officials in the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence community to provide evidence that Syrian government forces were responsible for launching a chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21. Secretary of State John Kerry also argued in a speechon Fridaythat there was “clear” evidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against its own people. Do you feel that the Obama administration and Mr. Kerry have made a compelling case for intervention?
Rush Holt:Not compelling, no, not yet a compelling case. You know, assertions by an administration official just won’t cut it. The memories of the assertions by President Bush and Secretary [of State] Colin Powell and others 10 years ago are still too fresh. Furthermore, what we need here is a broad understanding by the world community, not just by some congressional leaders, of what happened, who did it and what can be done about it. So there’s a fairly high bar of communication, of transparent communication, that must be met here. I’d say no, that that has not been met. The president has now said that he is going to call for a congressional debate. He hasn’t said clearly enough that the decision is Congress’, not his, to use military force. He still talks about “his decision” to use military force. And I would say that, although it is true that over the four decades the War Powers Act has not been very effective, nevertheless, it makes clear what the Constitution also makes clear: that the decision to fight, except in emergency self-defense matters, is the decision of Congress.
DP: A recent NBC poll found that 50 percent of respondents oppose the United States intervening militarily in response to Syria’s alleged chemical weapons usage, and that 79 percent of respondents say President Obama should be required to receive congressional approval before taking any military action. On the basis of these polling numbers and your own interactions with constituents, how would you characterize the American public’s support for intervention in Syria?
RH: Well, the American public is certainly war-weary, and the American public is very skeptical of having had two generally unproductive wars over the last decade. The public is, I think, very war-weary and very leery of getting involved in another military action where the outcome is very uncertain.
DP: Before yourelection to Congressandtenure at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, you were an arms control expert for the State Department. In your opinion, is there a danger that what the Obama administration characterizes as limited intervention in Syria could lead to deeper, more permanent involvement in the Syrian civil war by the United States and other countries?
RH:Well, in my work over the years to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, it has become clear to me that it must be done through international participation, multinational participation, so one nation—however powerful, however wealthy—cannot enforce, by itself, good international behavior. That has to be done internationally—I should say, multi-nationally. And that goes for chemical weapons as well as nuclear weapons. There has to be an international control regime. There has to be international, multinational condemnation of any violations and multinational action in response, so that it becomes clear that ... the use of weapons of mass destruction is outside the bounds of modern civilized behavior. One country by itself cannot enforce that.
I just want to make clear that the president doesn’t— mustn't—consult with Congress and listen or ignore that consultation as he pleases. He is obliged to consult with Congress on matters of using military force in areas of conflict.