Stephen Hadley, a former national security adviser to President George W. Bush, said Congress should authorize a military strike against Syria even if it risks retaliatory attacks and instability in neighboring Iraq.
Hadley, Bush’s top foreign policy adviser during the Republican president’s second term, said it’s crucial to enforce the “red line” President Barack Obama has declared against the use of chemical weapons in Syria if Iran also is to be prevented from developing nuclear weapons. It would be hard for Obama to act without lawmakers’ approval, Hadley said.
“When I talk to Republicans, I say, ‘If you are concerned about Iran and the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, you better be voting in favor of this resolution’” on Syria, Hadley said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend.
If lawmakers reject Obama’s request for a congressional resolution authorizing military force against Syria, Hadley said, then “the red line, if you will, that we’ve put down with Iran on its nuclear program doesn’t look credible.”
The Senate next week plans to take up a resolution intended to punish the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for what the U.S. says was its Aug. 21 use of chemical weapons that killed more than 1,400 people near Damascus.
In the first test of support, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the resolution by 10-7 on Sept. 4.
Obama, who plans to address the nation Tuesday to make his case for a “limited” and “proportional” strike against Syria, may face greater resistance in the Republican-controlled House, where he must overcome opposition from Tea Party members, antiwar Democrats and members of both parties concerned about drawing the U.S. into another Mideast war.
“It’s going to be a hard vote for Republicans,” Hadley said. “They’re not enamored with the president. They don’t really like the way he’s handled Syria policy.”
“But being where we are,” he said, “there’s really no alternative but to authorize action in Syria.”
While Obama has legal authority to conduct a strike even if Congress rejects his request, Hadley said, “I just, as a practical matter, don’t see how he goes forward at that point and says ‘Hey, I don’t need it, I’m going on my own.’”
Any strike should be followed by an increased effort to arm moderate factions of the Syrian opposition, Hadley said, to avoid letting groups aligned with al-Qaeda to gain control or allowing Syria to “melt down into chaos.”
The administration has been reluctant to arm rebel groups, partly because of the difficulty in discerning moderate from extremist elements, and the risk that weapons could fall into the wrong hands.
Hadley said that risk has been minimized by “an extreme falling out” between the Free Syrian Army, the leading moderate group, and groups affiliated with al-Qaeda.
“In fact, they’re fighting each other,” Hadley said of the opposition forces, so the risk of U.S. weapons falling into the hands of extremists “is now much less.”
If the U.S. doesn’t arm the moderates, Hadley said, Assad could win, al-Qaeda could become dominant or Syria could be torn apart. “None of those are good options for the United States or for Israel,” he said.
While Obama was right to seek authorization from Congress, Hadley said, the president erred by waiting too long.
“People have interpreted it as indecision and maybe lack of will,” Hadley said. “That’s unfair, but it is nonetheless how it’s being interpreted in the region, and that’s unfortunate.”
Hadley, now an adviser at the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington, said a military strike risks retaliatory action by Iran that could include directing Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based Shiite militia, to attack U.S. embassies in the region.
A strike also risks further undermining stability in Iraq, he said, which already is getting a spillover effect from Sunni and Shia fighting in Syria.
“I’m really concerned about whether this doesn’t completely destabilize Iraq as a result not just of what Syria’s doing, of course, but compounded by a U.S. strike,” he said.
In the president’s televised address next week, Hadley said, Obama must “emphasize the importance of this issue for credibility of the United States globally,” Hadley said. “It’s going to be hard, but it’s really the only option.”