All In   |  September 03, 2013

Syria: The case for war

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing Tuesday on a U.S. military strike against Syria, in which Secretary of State John Kerry offered dire warnings about the consequences of inaction. Chris Hayes is joined by Senator Jim Rish, R-Idaho, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., and Bassam Haddad, Director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University, to discuss the hearing and the resolution parameters that Congress will vote on in coming weeks.

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>>> good evening from washington, d.c. i'm chris hayes . tonight on "all in," the contest contested case for war in syria as the secretaries of state and defense face the foreign relations committee . they find a senate much like the country divided across unlikely lines. we will debate it all here coming up.

>>> also tonight, president obama is heading to russia . who he is going to meet with may completely surprise you. surprised me. we're going to talk about it.

>>> plus, we're not sure where exactly mitch mcconnell stands on the proposed syria situation, but we know where he is on women's issues. he's for them. just as long as you don't pay attention to his record. the all new mitch mcconnell , later in the show.

>>> but we begin tonight with a remarkable and dramatic day in the nation's capital. less than one week before congress officially reconvened, a senate hearing on a u.s. military strike against syria on which secretary of state john kerry offered dire, some might say hyperbolic, warnings of the consequences of inaction.

>> the opportunity for other dictators and/or terrorists to pursue their own weapons of mass destruction including nuclear weapons . i will tell you there are some people hoping that the united states congress doesn't vote for this very limited request the president has put before you. iran is hoping you look the other way.

>> that was just one small part of a day in which the political machinery in support of a military strike was on full display. this morning president obama held a private meeting with congressional leaders and used the opportunity to try to reassure a wary public.

>> military plan that has been developed by our joint chiefs and that i believe is appropriate is proportional. it is limited. it does not involve boots on the ground . this is not iraq, and this is not afghanistan.

>> immediately after that private meeting, house speaker john boehner and democratic leader nancy pelosi were quick to announce their support of war authorization.

>> the use of these weapons had to be responded to, and only the united states has the capability and the capacity to stop assad and to warn others around the world that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated. i'm going to support the president's call for action. i believe my colleagues should support this call for action.

>> president obama did not draw the red line . humanity drew it decades ago. 170-some countries. so it is really something that from a humanitarian standpoint cannot be ignored or else we cannot say never again.

>> senate minority leader mitch mcconnell reserved judgment and there's certainly no consensus yet among either party about the use of force . and in that senate foreign relations hearing today, a democrat, senator robert men menend menendez, asked if a prohibition of ground troops in the congressional authorization would be something the administration could accept.

>> in the event syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al nusra or someone else , i don't want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to the president of the united states to secure our country.

>> later in the same hearing, secretary kerry back tracked on whether such a limiting resolution would be a deal breaker for the white house .

>> i don't want anybody misinterpreting this from earlier. this authorization does not contemplate and should not have any allowance for any troop on the ground. i just want to make that absolutely clear. you know, what i was doing was hypothesizing about a potential it might occur at some point in time, but not in this authorization in no way, be crystal clear , there's no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for american troops on the ground within the authorization the president is asking for.

>> it's no wonder secretary kerry tried to clarify that hypothetical situation. the public is strongly opposed to u.s. military action even in the event of a determination of the use of chemical weapons by syria . according to the latest poll, this is nearly reverse the findings of a december poll showing public support. in other words, as the idea of military action against syria has become less abstract, the public seems to be less supportive. it is also notable that today in a press conference in new york, the u.n. secretary general ban ki-moon essentially said a u.s. strike under these circumstances without u.n. approval would be illegal.

>> the use of force is lawful only when an exercise of self-defense in accordance with article 51 of the united nations charter and/or when the security council approves such action.

>> all of this as president obama is set to depart within the hour en route to stockholm before the g-20 summit. joining me now is senator jim rich, republican from idaho, a member of senate foreign relations committee . he considers himself extremely reluctant to authorize a strike on ssyria. senator, anything you heard today in testimony change your mind?

>> well, not really. i want to keep an open mind on this. i wanted to let the administration make the best case it can for it. i thought senator kerry gave an excellent speech today, but i still have difficulties with it for reasons i'm sure we'll talk about here in a minute.

>> do you agree with secretary of state john kerry and the president and all we've heard from the white house that the president has the authority, legally, constitutionally to do this even without congressional approval?

>> i do not agree with that, and not only that, i'm not alone up here, and it's bipartisan. the democrats, a lot of them are of the same frame of mind . if you read the constitution, it's absolutely clear that the war-making power is vested in the first branch of government, not in the executive branch . indeed, james madison in the federalist papers said over and over again that the branch most likely to make war was the executive branch , and therefore, the founding fathers put that in the hands of people in the first branch of government.

>> do you believe in a counterfactual universe in which we're discussing a republican president, mitt romney , that you would have the same reluctance?

>> well, if it -- are you talking about his compliance with the constitution or talking about the actual attack on syria ?

>> i'm talking about both the constitutional position that this --

>> the answer would be --

>> -- has to come through article 1 the actual substance of the matter.

>> the answer would be yeses as to both of those. i would counsel president romney that he shouldn't do it in violation of the constitution, and secondly, i would counsel him that he would have to have better answers than what this administration has as far as making justifications. and more importantly, to me, where we're going with this, what does success look like? what does day two, three and four look like? how are you going to deal with the fallout assuming russia reacts adversely, which we know they will to some degree or another, and depending how they would react if hezbollah reacted adversely, which we know they will. they're already fighting on behalf of assad in syria .

>> can you imagine a future situation in which some scale of chemical weapons attack from the assad regime, if we stipulate for the moment that they were responsible, as the evidence suggests, can you imagine a scale of chemical attack over which point you would feel the u.s. is actually compelled to act?

>> absolutely. i think if they use chemical against any american, against any american interest, against any american ally. let me be clear, they are a neighbor to israel. we have treaties with israel. they require the defense. i would be all in. as far as within the country, everybody knows that this isn't the first time that assad has used gas against his own people. indeed, saddam hussein used it against his own people, and so i can envision a point where there was a catastrophic use that would engage us. you know, the other thing that's overlooked here, he's already killed 100,000 people with conventional weapons . you know, that is bad. and, again, i don't want to deminimize what this man's done. he's done awful, awful terrible things. and so, you know, i don't want to deminimize that. on the other hand, i do not buy on to the theory that this is in -- that this is a national security matter for the united states . indeed, and i'm certainly not advocating this, but indeed, if we go in and bomb a few facilities then walk away , i'm not so sure that we've taught anybody a lesson.

>> senator jim risch , republican from idaho. thank you so much for time, sir.

>> thank you.

>> i should clarify the 100,000 number is the total estimated death toll in the civil war on both sides as of now. we do not know how that's apportioned by by the assad regime and the rebels. joining me, gerry connolly of virginia. he's drafting the house democrats resolution that would put strict limits on a syria attra attack. how does it differ from the proposed draft language that was sent over by the white house ?

>> radically. first of all, it puts a time limit on when this authority can be used. it strictly limits it to a military targeting in response to this heinous crime. the chemical attack on citizens in the damascus suburbs. it also codifies in the resolution that we preclude boots on the ground . so that debate you were looking at just a little bit earlier is addressed in our resolution.

>> let's say that the -- this resolution were to pass which i think is probably very much up in the air, am i right, you do not know whether this is going to have the votes in the house.

>> the reason we drafted this resolution was to try to find a path toward acting in the narrow way constructed by the president, himself. the white house resolution that was submitted to the congress is overly broad, in my opinion, cannot pass the house. i personally would not support it.

>> you would not support the white house 's resolution. you are obviously supporting this since you helped draft it. let's say that this were to pass and the white house were to engage in the kind of strike that is kind of foreseen in the draft language here. what do you say to people that say, okay, so then what?

>> well, the question in front of us is, is the evidence convincing? i believe it is.

>> is the evidence -- let's be very clear on what it is. is the evidence clear that the assad regime actually launched this chemical weapons , killed --

>> to suggest the rebels did that is absurd. they have no such capability. it was clearly done by the assad regime. i believe intelligence corroborates that. the intelligence is fairly convinc convinces. what is the remedy? people of good conscience on both sides of the aisle are wrestling with that. some prefer to do nothing. my concern is the legacy of that is very dangerous.

>> can i give a counterexample? senator john kerry invoked the legacy question. it was a big part of the argument. saddam hussein used chemical weapons in two different uses. both against the kurds to put down a domestic insurgency against the kurds and also in his war with iran . now, he was never punished with that in the way we're talking about punishing assad . yet no other leader used these kind of weapons until assad did which would suggest to me that it's possible that it's really only extreme circumstances that led to the use rather than this punitively established international norm.

>> by in large for the last 90 or 100 years, these weapons have not been used except in the iran / iraq war and by saddam hussein . i happen to be on the senate foreign relations committee staff when that happened. we tried to get the evidence and tried to get the administration at that time to take that action seriously. we failed eed on that effort. it's not that it wasn't noted and it wasn't that there weren't voices urging action at that time.

>> empb in the absence of that action, my point being, as a historical matter, in the absence of that action, it was not the case that failure to act in a punitive way after that opened the flood gates on the use of chemical weapons .

>> very little attention was brought to it at the time. that's not the case here. the whole world is watching now. including bad actors in the region. and including north korea and iran .

>> so the argument is the heightened scrutiny of the international community on this occasion means the stakes are higher if there is no action. that's your argument.

>> i believe that is an argument and a fairly compelling one. i also believe international law is fairly clear in outlawing the use of these weapons.

>> are you going to get a majority of democrats to vote for this resolution?

>> i have no idea. we're -- chris van hollen and i collaborated on writing this very excruciatingly, narrowly drafted to try to allow the president to have the authority he's seeking and codify what the president, himself, said is limited in terms of this action. it isn't designed to be an all-comprehensive approach to syria or the syrian crisis. it's designed to address this tragic event with this remedy on a limited basis.

>> congressman gerry connolly, democrat from virginia.

>> thank you, chris, for having me.

>> joining me, director of the middle east studies program at george mason university . he's a scholar who specializes in syria . he opposes u.s. military intervention there. and professor, my first question to you is, the argument being made largely by john kerry and the administration is on the grounds of a humanitarian case. essentially enforcing this international norm against the use of weapons that are as ghastly as the ones we see deployed here. why do you not think it's a good idea for the united states to engage in military action to enforce that norm?

>> well, first of all, to push for this argument on humanitarian level is actually quite ridiculous, considering what has taken place in the region under our nose and our spore and continues to take place in the region with the support of the united states , of various dictatorships and support of settler colonial state of israel and various other forms. what needs to be discussed right now is something a lot more serious than the debate suggests.

>> let me interrupt. we have very similar views on american foreign policy . it also seems to be like a little bit of hiding the ball to talk in those circumstances. whatever the sins of the american government and its participation in the region, which i'm sure you could spend a lot of time listing, many of which i would agree with you on, that does not necessarily, right, in an operational, moral or legal sense, take away from the possibility that it would be actually beneficial to the international world order or to syrians for the u.s. to get involved?

>> okay. i mean, this is what i'm trying to get to, the devil's advocate argument. the debate right now centers around the idea that taking action is less risky than not taking action. this way of framing the debate is actually extremely problematic and off.ways, first of all, th is eliminates the possibility that there is another action. it absolves the u.s. from taking another action or another choice because the debate is being framed as action versus inaction. no, there is another course of action, and that is as we have been listening to many people saying, i've been saying several times on various media, that there is a solution to the conflict as much as we think it is difficult, the united states and russia can come together and compel all parties to the conflict that the united states and russia will actually potentially come to a table and create the opportunity or the circumstances for the transition, because let me just say this, because what we are not paying attention to is that a limited strike, first of all, will not be effective. second of all, it will make the conflict more volatile, and third of all, foreclose any possibility of a solution down the road. it's basically eliminating that possibility for the sake of very limited gains that can spin out of control and bring the entire region into this conflict.

>> bassam haddad, from george mason university . thank you for your