‘This is probably the first war in history where the attacking party has set out to not destroy the other side’

September 8, 2013
Senator James Risch (R-ID).
Sen. James Risch (R-ID).

James Risch is a Republican Senator from Idaho, and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. He voted against the committee's  resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria. On Thursday, we spoke about why. An transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Ezra Klein: How are you thinking about Syria at this point? 

James Risch: I think it’s a mistake. I think the risks far outweigh the possible rewards and that’s the bottom line.

EK: Tell me a bit more about those risks. The White House promises this will be an extremely limited strike and your committee’s authorization for force expressly precludes ground troops. So what can go wrong?

JR: The one thing they say, and they’re clear and firm on this, is their objective is not to kill Assad or change the regime. This is probably the first war in history where the attacking party has set out to not destroy the other side. It’s different in that regard.

The fact is they have to do that because if they actually succeed in destroying Assad there is no infrastructure to take his place. You’ll have a country with a substantial amount of weaponry, including a fair number of weapons of mass destruction, including what they claim is tons of gas, and who will be in possession of those weapons? You don’t really know because the opposition is, to put it kindly, fragmented. We know there are elements of al-Qaeda there, but probably more importantly there are elements of al Nusra. They’re the most likely successor. If you look at where they’ve placed themselves, the parts where the opposition is in control tends to have al Nusra as the predominant force. If these people get their hands on those weapons we could have a very, very bad day down the road.

So the first risk that I’m concerned about is dispersal of weapons of mass destruction. There’s no answer about what happens if you start seeing pictures on CNN of people wheeling wheelbarrows with canisters of sarin down the street. Who does what about that?

Then, what will Hezbollah do? Whatever they decide to do will come from Iran, and I cannot believe there won’t be retaliation for doing this. One possibility of course would be attacking Israel.

And what’s Russia going to do? They said Russia won’t do anything. The next morning ABC ran the story that Putin is threatening to sell S-300s to Iran. If Iran accepts S-300s and they take delivery and deploy them, again, I can’t speak for Israel, but I suspect they would view that as a red line because it would eliminate Israel’s ability to do what they believe they eventually have to do with Iran’s nuclear weapon.

EK: And what about the argument that if we don’t punish the use of chemical weapons other dictators or countries or actors will feel more empowered to use their stockpiles in the future?

JR: Let me say that what this guy did was despicable. I don’t mean to in any way minimize what he did. But if we go in with a surgical strike and the regime survives is that really punishment? Who’s going to get punished? The people or the regime? What happens on the day we’re done and he crawls out of his hole and stands up and says, “that all you’ve got?” What have we done to our reputation or the confidence people have in our military? I could make a case that that’s a worse situation than if you do nothing.

EK: The administration argues -- and Secretary Kerry argued before your committee -- that the strikes will hurt Assad’s military capabilities and so, whatever he says, he will know and the world will know he was punished. What I struggle with is how to reconcile the idea that these strikes won’t change anything in the war with the idea that they will hurt Assad badly enough to serve as a warning to others going forward.

JR: I think you’ve described that accurately. It’s almost as if they actually want to degrade Assad’s regime and when it falls not have to be responsible for it. And believe me, I can understand, when you see those pictures, it brings tears to your eyes. You want to do something. But what you don’t want to do is make it worse. And I think the administration is admitting that if they did take out the regime they’d make it worse. How do you do what you want to do without taking out the regime by accident?

EK: One argument that’s being made is that there are regional implications to the United States acting here. First, if we say there’s a red line, then there need to be consequences for crossing it, and second, if there aren’t consequences, then that could embolden other actors, like Iran, in their pursuit of WMDs.

JR: There’s a counterargument to that and that is that as time goes on it’s becoming more apparent that it will be a military option that stops Iran. Nobody wants that. I don’t want it. I’ve been a leader on sanctions. But having said that will the American people be willing to pull the trigger a second time in a relatively short period of time? I don’t know there’ll be the stomach for that.

What I don’t buy is that Iran will look at this and say we can do what we want and the U.S. won’t act. I’m opposed to this but I’m entirely different when it comes to Iran. I don’t think Syria is a threat to our national security but if Iran is close to nuclear weapons that’s a very, very different threat to our national security and I’m all in. I think Iran understands that.

The other thing is we’re the 800-pound gorilla. That’s one thing that has impressed me in my service on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees. Our intelligence and weapon capabilities -- we don’t just outweigh everyone else by a few hundred pounds. We’re just in a different class. You never see this denied. It’s not close. When you hold that position you don’t have to act just to show you’re tough and you have the capability. I think you can use restraint without damaging your credibility.

EK: Is there a moral case to be made here? This is an ongoing humanitarian disaster. Is there something we should be doing to prevent that?

JR: On the national security issue, had Assad or the regime used gas against any American, any American interest, or any American ally intentionally, I’d have a whole different view. On the moral issue, that gets more complicated, because certainly an argument can be made that no one on earth can get away with this. But then whose job is it to do something about that?

177 countries have signed the treaty on the non-use of gas. Where are they? Some want to hold our coat and say go get them. Others say don’t do this at all. If they all come together and you get a use that is similar to this you might hook me, But for them to just hold our coat and some to oppose, and even the head of the U.N. is saying it would be illegal?

EK: Do you think President Obama will ultimately be able to win the vote on a congressional authorization of force?

JR: My guess is it passes in the Senate. Then the question becomes the House and if you had to bet it even, once the speaker signed on, I would bet the president can deliver all his party and it’s a short walk from there. And then every American, including myself, has to get on our knees and pray for a successful outcome.

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Ezra Klein · September 7, 2013