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Rep. Brad Sherman explains how the White House could win the Syria vote

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. We spoke on Tuesday about his thinking on Syria. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Ezra Klein: How are you approaching the question of what to do in Syria?

Rep. Brad Sherman: I just got this report from the Congressional Research Service about all the uses of American armed forces abroad. They didn’t even number the pages. You’ve got 300 instances since 1973. Situations where we provided air cover to U.S. operations in East Timor. You probably forgot that from May to June 1978 we utilized military transport in support of Belgium and French rescue operations in Zaire.

It’s amazing how a country that has deployed its forces into harm’s way half-a-dozen times a year has really taken a deep breath about an intervention the president describes as barely five percent of what we did in Libya. And for this he’s seeking congressional authorization! It’s very strange. There is no correlation between the political review and the action being taken.

EK: Why do you think President Obama chose to approach Congress for authorization in this case, when he’s said he doesn’t need the authority, and when he acted without it in Libya?

BS: As far as I can tell, the president seems to be seeking congressional authorization because the UN, NATO and even Britain aren’t there. That doesn’t make sense in terms of the Constitution. There’s nothing in the Constitution about the U.N. Security Council. But we do have less international support than we did in, say, Libya.

EK: And much more limited goals, too.

BS: This is a mission with extremely limited objectives. You’re trying to punish the Assad regime but not cause it to lose the fight it’s in while also not helping it win the fight it’s in. We are clearly diffident about what we want to happen in Syria. On the other hand, let’s say it’s 2035, and this-or-that dictator is thinking of using chemical weapons. Do you want them to say Assad used them on a large scale in August of 2013, nothing happened so he kept doing it, and the best experts say he killed 70,000 people in 82 major instances over two years? If that happens, you can take that 1925 agreement not to use chemical weapons and kiss it goodbye.

EK: The description you give of the mission is amazing. I understand why we want to uphold the ban on chemical weapons. But we care about that ban because, in theory, it saves lives. Assad has proven himself perfectly capable of massacring his population using conventional arms. To intervene with the express intent of leaving the balance of power unchanged but slightly alter Assad’s incentives to use different kinds of weaponry when killing civilians seems like an incredibly abstract reason to go to war.

BS: The upside in Syria is abstract. The goal here is to deter dictators in 2022 from using chemical weapons on a mass scale against civilians. That is a very abstract objective. On the other hand what the president is proposing here is a use of American military power that he anticipates has less risk to our forces than dozens of different deployments that you and I have forgotten about. I didn’t know about the U.S. forces in Zaire in 1978!

EK: Do you think we should be doing more?

BS: I don’t think we should be considering more than we’re considering. But I think we should be doing the things we say we’re doing. We’re on record saying we’re providing nonlethal aid to the right elements in Syria. We should be really doing it. We’re considering military attacks against Assad’s forces that will weaken him and I think we should consider actually doing it.

EK: What did you think of President Obama’s proposed authorization of force?

BS: You know when the bank prints out checks and mails them to you? Yeah, it’s a blank check! The administration knows full well they’ve got to change it. I’m probably more in favor of some action being taken in Syria than the average members of Congress but I couldn’t vote for that resolution. No one in Congress could vote for it.

EK: Do you think the president will actually get the votes he needs?

BS: I would say it will require two things. One, he needs to quickly propose a different resolution that is extremely narrow. It needs to authorize only what he says he wants to do. If instead the lawyers and planners in the administration say they want a resolution that authorizes anything they might want to do, they’ll fail. Second, I think he’ll need to go on TV, in primetime. The active public is against this. I don’t know a member of Congress whose e-mails and phone calls are in favor of this.

EK: Will the president’s decision to come to Congress here serve as a precedent for the future? Or would a war with more public support or international legitimacy give the president confidence to act without Congress?

BS: Obviously it shouldn’t be any president’s game plan to go right up to the line without the slightest indication you’ll seek congressional support and then slam on the brakes and say. ‘I want to wait for Congress.’ That wasn’t this president’s plan and it shouldn’t be any president’s plan. And one lesson here should be that you need to decide you’re either going to go to Congress or not. You can’t turn on a dime.

But if Congress authorizes force and the force is used as authorized it may form a precedent of coming to Congress. But if it doesn’t give authority then this might be held up as an example of why you don’t go to Congress. I would like to think the statutes should matter and you come to Congress under the War Powers Act when you expect to deploy for over 60 days. When in doubt follow the law.

EK: Do you think that the skepticism about a limited intervention in Syria is related to a broader skepticism about American military interventions in general?

BS: Part of the debate on this is, okay, there’s been a violation of international norms and a thousand people died. Should it be up to the U.S. to take some action that deters or punishes that -- or not? Nobody in Brazil is thinking the Brazilian military needs to respond. They might choose to come along with us and help out. But everyone agrees that if anything will happen it’ll be U.S. led. That’s a great honor, but an expensive one. Canadians enjoy peace and liberty at a fraction of the cost.