At about 1 p.m. on Labor Day, U.S. Representative Tim Bishop had just finished an hour-long unclassified phone briefing by members of the Obama administration on the situation in Syria.
Mr. Bishop and other members of the Democratic Caucus were briefed that day by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The congressman said it had raised his “level of confidence in terms of the quality and accuracy of the intelligence” behind the Obama administration’s assertion that Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own citizens on August 21, killing more than 1,400 people, including 426 children, in the suburbs of Damascus.
Still, considering the public’s deception about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003, and the fact that the Iraq war is only now coming to an end, Mr. Bishop said he wanted to be absolutely certain.
“We need to have an absolutely unequivocal assurance that this attack was carried out by the Assad regime,” he said.
Mr. Bishop said he also needs assurance that any attack would be quick and targeted and that “our engagement would not be lengthy … no boots-on-the-ground commitment.” The concern that there would be collateral damage of innocents was also on his mind.
Last week, President Obama announced his intention to launch a limited military strike against Syria, then, over the weekend, he announced that he instead would seek authorization from Congress, which is out of session until Monday, September 9.
Administration officials have been briefing and lobbying members of Congress since then, and by Tuesday they had picked up support from House Speaker John A. Boehner and several other Republicans, with scheduled appearances to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“The members of Congress are very interested in getting as much information as they possibly can, and I include myself in this group,” Mr. Bishop said on Monday. Anecdotally, his constituents seem to be split, with some saying the United States cannot police the world, and others saying the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must face consequences.
“The use of chemical weapons is absolutely reprehensible,” Mr. Bishop said, adding that there have been norms against them since World War I. “So the question is, what is the best possible response that could make it clear that the international community does not condone such behavior?”
“Does the international community, led by the U.S., allow a two-bit dictator to flout international norms?” he asked. “Does that give greater likelihood to other countries using those weapons at some future time?”
However, Mr. Bishop said, the war in Iraq should never have been fought, and the one in Afghanistan “has gone on way too long.” The former took a toll on this country’s standing in the international community, financially and on several thousand families who lost a loved one or saw one come back with an injury, the congressman pointed out.
Mr. Bishop predicted that the “absolute earliest” that Congress would vote on a military strike would be on Wednesday, September 11, after having Tuesday and much of that Wednesday to review documents, including classified ones, in Washington, D.C. It was “unthinkable” that President Obama would act before then, Mr. Bishop said.
“There is no easy answer,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a good option.”