Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Fine Print

Senate Foreign Relations panel tries to make move on Syria, but that’s a misuse of its power

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has injected itself into U.S. foreign policy making regarding Syria.

It’s not the first time lawmakers have moved to pressure a president to take a momentous step that could involve U.S. lives and treasure.

(J. Scott Applewhite/AP) - Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., right, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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As someone who worked for the panel in the late 1960s when it was chaired by Sen. J.W. Fulbright (D-Ark.), I participated in efforts to reshape Nixon administration policies related to the Vietnam War.

I have enormous respect for the committee’s power to influence foreign policy when it plays its rightful role, but I also believe the actions of the current panel reflect the dysfunction in today’s Congress.

The Constitution gives the president sole power to make foreign policy. The Senate does have its roles to play. Under the Constitution, it must give “advice and consent” to treaties and approve presidential appointees, such as ambassadors.

It also must approve funding of the president’s budget, and through that process it has an opportunity to adopt, reject or even reshape foreign policy initiatives. By investigating and holding hearings, Senate Foreign Relations and other congressional committees can create public understanding — and support or opposition — to a president’s foreign policy agenda.

But trying to legislate what President Obama should do when it comes to initiating military intervention in Syria, through providing arms or nonlethal aid, is going too far.

Members know their limits, so the Syria Transition Support Act of 2013, approved 15 to 3 on Tuesday, probably won’t become law. It’s more of a gesture, specifying it is not authorizing “use of military force” or adding more to the budget. The $250 million for Syrian transition expenses would come from already authorized funds.

These actions misuse the panel’s power, which can be quite useful in our government.

The committee under Fulbright, for example, held multiple hearings on Vietnam, calling in not just government officials but also experts on all sides of the issue. Committee staff members, including me, went on fact-finding missions to South Vietnam and also surrounding countries.

The foreign relations panel had a closed intelligence briefing on Syria in September and another one April 10. The next day it had a public hearing with current administration officials and a former one. Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced his bill, co-sponsored by the ranking Republican member, Bob Corker (Tenn.), on May 6.

“The legislation plans for a post-Assad Syria by offering humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, limited lethal and non-lethal assistance and training to vetted Syrian groups,” according to a panel news release.

The measure lists a dozen purposes for U.S. assistance, almost all of which are noble but few of which can be guaranteed. Note the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Opposition groups to be assisted with arms and other aid are committed to “fascilitating an orderly transition to a more stable democratic political order including protecting human rights, expanding political participation and providing religious freedom to all Syrians, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, or gender.”

Just back from Syria and Yemen, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote in Wednesday’s newspaper, “We can only properly answer the question — should we be arming the Syrian rebels? — if we first answer what kind of Syria do we want to see emerge and what will it take, beyond arms, to get there?” He describes talking to a Free Syrian Army commander whose leadership team consisted of “my nephew, my cousin, my brother, my cousin, my nephew, my son, my cousin. . . . What does that tell you?” he asks.

He suggested that should President Bashar al-Assad fall, the country will need an international peacekeeping force to prevent fighting among religious, tribal and ethnic groups. His questions are “not just who will rule” but “how will anyone rule?”

My take-away is that we need to know more about Syria and more about the aftermath of what Menendez proposes. We need to know more than he and his committee know, and more than the panel has explained to the rest of us. It’s easy to write legislation. The harder job is to get public support for intervention in a difficult and costly venture.

Polls have shown that Americans aren’t eager to get involved.

Compare all this with Jan. 4, 1973. On the Senate floor, Fulbright announced it was “Congress’s duty to employ the legislative process to bring the [Vietnam] war to an immediate end. . . . Now, more than ever, it is the responsibility of members of both parties in Congress to use the legislature’s power to cut off funds to end the war in Vietnam.”

His position followed years of hearings that helped yield more public opposition to the war and Nixon’s 1972 pledge that if reelected he would end the war.

On Jan. 27, 1973, the United States and North Vietnam signed an agreement to end the U.S. role in the fighting, and by March 1973 the last U.S. ground combat troops left South Vietnam. In mid-1973, Congress halted funding combat operations.

When Menendez’s bill passed the committee, he described the Syrian situation as “critical for Syrians, for the region, and for the U.S. effort to counter extremism.”

His statement took me back to 1970 and another Fulbright speech: “Old Myths and New Realities.”

“Every issue is now a ‘critical’ issue; every threat a ‘grave’ one, and I doubt if there is a square inch left on the face of the earth that someone does not regard as ‘strategic,’ ” he said.

U.S. involvement in Syria needs a longer, serious look.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

 
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