Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, left, testifies on the crisis in Syria with US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, center, and US Secretary of State John Kerry during a hearing with the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington on Sept. 4. (Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Benghazi. Costs. Al-Qaida. Hezbollah. War weariness. No coalition. Unconstitutional.
Those were just a few of the issues Republican and Democratic House members cited on Wednesday about the White House’s intention to launch a military attack in Syria, raising new doubts about the chamber authorizing even limited strikes.
The House began debating whether to give President Obama its approval to hammer Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military forces and chemical weapons arsenal with Tomahawk missiles.
And, Obama administration officials learned, it’s shaping up — as expected — to be a tough sell.
Secretary of State John Kerry, the White House’s point man for selling a Syrian strike, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee the situation in the Middle Eastern nation is having a “direct” effect on U.S. national security.
House members, however, joined some of their Senate counterparts in questioning such administration statements.
Dubiously for the White House, that includes a number of Democrats.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., for instance questioned whether U.S. cruise missile strikes would make much difference in a conflict he believes is about two religious sects’ differences.
“Civil wars have to be fought internally,” Higgins said.
He cited the American misadventure in Iraq. The memories of that conflict are hounding the White House’s efforts to secure congressional approval for a Syria mission, with lawmakers of both parties so far this week using a common term of warning: “The lessons of Iraq.”
The White House appears to have an uphill battle in convincing even loyal Democrats to vote in favor of a use-of-force resolution.
Democratic National Committee (DNC) Vice Chair Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, for example, called the administration’s description of the “path ahead” in Syria as unclear. And she is concerned about “securing” Assad’s chemical weapons to ensure they don’t fall into the hands of anti-U.S. groups.
Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., also is concerned about the administration’s plans for Assad’s chemical weapons, saying if the White House has no plans to “secure” them, “that’s a hard thing to explain to my constituents.”
At numerous times during the hours-long House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, members from both parties told Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey that the folks back home are war weary.
What’s more, House members echoed something Senate Armed Services Committee member Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., told reporters earlier Wednesday: Many of their constituents have called, written and told them in person that they do not view Syria’s civil strife as a U.S. national security matter.
Multiple public opinion polls in recent weeks also show most Americans surveyed oppose a U.S. military mission in strike.
Another Democrat, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., told the officials many lawmakers want a larger coalition of nations either involved or publicly stating their support for a US operation.
Kerry responded by saying 53 nations have voiced support. He said a number of Arab states could in the next few days begin publicly voicing support.
Several minutes later, the secretary of state named specific nations, telling the House panel that Canada, Denmark, France, Poland and Turkey “have suggested” the US should “take action.”
Analysts say the White House will need as many votes on the House floor as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., can deliver. Pundits say it is an awkward position for Pelosi, a longtime, mostly dovish liberal.
Republican House members, on the other hand, are far more reluctant to go to war than in the decade after 9/11. Their public opposition to a military operation desired by a Democratic president they have so often panned and opposed was less surprising than that from members of his own party.
“The administration’s Syria policy doesn’t build confidence,” committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said. “The administration’s proposal supports a U.S. military response against a country in civil war. Needless to say, this complicates the consideration.
“There are concerns. The president promises a military operation in Syria of limited scope and duration. But the Assad regime would have a say in what happens next,” Royce said. “That’d be particularly true as President Obama isn’t aiming to change the situation on the ground.”
Among the questions Republicans — and many Democrats — want administration officials to answer, as articulated by Royce, include: “What are the chances of escalation? Are different scenarios accounted for? If our credibility is on the line now, as is argued, what about if Assad retaliates?”
GOP Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida told the officials he has concluded it might be “unconstitutional” to “attack a country that did not attack us.”
Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said not only does he not buy the Obama administration’s claims that Assad used chemical weapons on Aug. 21, he said he believes the White House should put off any strikes Obama might order even without congressional authorization until it answers Republican’s outstanding questions about the deadly attack on a US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.
Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Tom Marino hammered Kerry over his allegations that the White House still lacks a good understanding of whether Syrian opposition elements are on Washington’s side.
“You either trust or do not trust and if you do not trust,” Marino roared, “we don’t call these people our allies!”
Republican Rep. Ted Poe of Texas said he agrees with the Obama administration that Assad is “wastin’ good air breathing” and is “a bad guy.” But Poe said he questions an administration strike plan that is, as he put it, “just a shot across the bow.”
The Texan also sharply questioned the witnesses about what happens if Assad — or groups fighting with the opposition like al-Qaida or Hezbollah — “shoot back” at Israel or the United States.
Kerry and Dempsey, for their part, assured Poe the Pentagon has thought about that, and has plans in place.
Poe also said he worries a U.S. mission in Syria could trigger further instability across the already volatile Middle East.
Marino and other members questioned whether the Pentagon — and the nation — could even afford a Syria operation.
Hagel told the GOP lawmaker that the Pentagon estimates a limited action would cost “in the tens of millions of dollars.”
Sister publication Defense News, citing independent analyses and estimates, reported last week that a realistic price tag would fall in the hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s because the Raytheon-built Tomahawk missiles that would be the main munition fired cost about $1.4 million each, and the Pentagon likely would seek to replenish its inventory.