The Obama administration on Sunday ramped up efforts to build support for a military strike on Syria, with Secretary of State John F. Kerry meeting in Europe with allies and Arab leaders and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough blitzing the U.S. political talk shows to urge Congress to back President Obama.
“The risks of inaction outweigh the risks of action,” Mr. McDonough said in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” one of the five shows he hit a day before Mr. Obama is scheduled to be interviewed by the six major broadcast news networks.
On Tuesday, the president will take to the airwaves to make his case directly to the American public for a limited attack on Syria.
The White House intensified its lobbying efforts after a week in which opposition to a proposed U.S.-led strike seemed to build in Congress and the president returned from the Group of 20 summit in Russia with no firm commitments from allies on joining a “coalition of the willing.”
On Sunday night, Vice President Joseph R. Biden had dinner with several Republican senators in an effort to persuade them to support the president on Syria, a meeting on which Mr. Obama dropped in. The White House did not specify how many senators, or which ones, were at the vice president’s residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory.
A Senate aide told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity that Mr. Obama will meet with his own party’s senators Tuesday before his televised speech.
Mr. Obama sent Congress a draft resolution last weekend asking for permission to strike at the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons facilities, but key members of the House and Senate have rejected the request as too broad.
Mr. McDonough said Sunday that while there is no question in his mind that the Syrian government of Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, there isn’t “irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence” on the point.
But “this is not a court of law. And intelligence does not work that way,” he said. “The common-sense test says he is responsible for this. He should be held to account.”
Mr. McDonough said Sunday that he is confident Congress will back the president once members see evidence that the Assad regime authorized the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that left almost 1,500 dead in Syria.
“Frankly, members have been in their states and in their districts and have not had a chance to see all that we are ready to brief them on,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation. “Those who have seen it are very compelled.”
Mr. Kerry, speaking in Paris a day earlier in a joint appearance with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, said Mr. Assad needs to be held accountable for his actions.
“It is not hyperbole to say that the safety of the entire world depends on whether our collective conscience and our commitment to international norms that have been in place for nearly a century compels us to react,” Mr. Kerry said. “We are not talking about going to war. … What we are talking about here is a limited military action, one that is aimed squarely at degrading Assad’s capacity to use chemical weapons and deterring him from using them again.”
Mr. Kerry, who met with representatives of the Arab League, said Saudi Arabia supports military action.
“They have supported a strike and they support taking action. They believe it’s very important to do that,” he said.
But U.S. lawmakers from both sides of the aisle remain skeptical.
Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, said even targeted strikes constitute an act of war.
“I’m very disappointed that the administration has given up. They have given up on the United Nations and on rallying the world,” Mr. Udall said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I think what we’re talking about is moving much too rapidly down the warpath and not trying to find a political solution through the international community.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” said, “One, I think the administration is proceeding with the wrong objective, and two, because they have no viable plan for success.”
Mr. Cruz suggested alternatives, including cutting off aid to Iraq unless it revokes air rights to Iran, a key Syrian ally, and forcing a vote in the United Nations Security Council to make Russia and China veto it publicly.
“I don’t think that’s the job of our military to be defending amorphous international norms,” Mr. Cruz said.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, said Congress’ decision on whether to strike should be binding on Mr. Obama, who has suggested he may order a strike on Syria with or without congressional permission.
“He has already been proven to go above the law in several instances,” Mr. Paul said on Fox, citing nominations during recess as one example. “Whether you impeach someone is a different issue and a very big one.”
A top House Democrat said that while the White House may have the legal authority to launch an attack without Congress, going over the heads of lawmakers wouldn’t be right.
“I think while he has the constitutional authority, I think morally he will have lost the authority to move forward,” Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, said on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat from a pro-Obama district, said it’s “possible” that he would support the president under a more limited resolution being drafted by the House.
“I want to support the president. I believe in him. And I believe that if the president, being a president that came in and campaigned on taking us out of war says that, you know, I think we need to do this. I want to make sure I understand what he is seeing,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
It’s not just Democrats supporting limited strikes. Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he wants Congress to approve a resolution. But the broken relationship between Congress and the president is part of the problem in getting the votes needed for a resolution, he said.
“They don’t have strong relationships in Congress — today that’s a huge problem for them — and candidly have done an awful job explaining to the American people what is in our national security, what is the national United States interests in any level of engagement in a place like Syria,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “It is a confusing mess, up to this point.”