National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice made a forceful case Monday for the Obama administration’s pursuit of military strikes on Syria, arguing that failing to respond strongly to alleged chemical weapons use would cast doubt on the United States’ willingness to defend its interests.
If the nation does not punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the Aug. 21 attacks near Damascus, Rice said, it “could indicate the United States is not prepared to use the full range of tools necessary to keep our country safe.”
“Any president, Republican or Democrat, must have recourse to all elements of American power to design and implement our national security policy — diplomatic, economic or militaristic,” Rice said during an address at the nonpartisan New American Foundation. “Rejecting limited military action that President Obama strongly supports would raise questions around the world about whether the United States is truly prepared to use the full range of its power.”
Rice’s argument, coming a day before Obama is scheduled to address the nation, was part of a high-stakes administration blitz, through the media and meetings on Capitol Hill, designed to sway public opinion and win votes for the use-of-force authorization the president is seeking from Congress.
The Obama administration has asserted that it has overwhelming evidence that Assad used the chemical weapons in the Aug. 21 attack that killed more than 1,400 people, including at least 426 children — crossing a “red-line” that the president said must be enforced to discourage further use of weapons of mass destruction by Assad and other regimes.
With support from lawmakers in both parties waning over the past week, Obama was set to discuss his Syria strategy in interviews with six television networks Monday evening. Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken briefed reporters Monday at the White House’s daily briefing, part of the all-hands-on-deck approach the administration was employing.
In her address at the think tank, Rice, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has advocated a tough stance on Syria, stepped up the administration’s rhetoric by warning that America’s enemies would become emboldened if Congress fails to approve the use-of-force resolution.
She suggested that the rulers of Iran and North Korea, countries with nuclear weapons ambitions, are closely watching the deliberations this week.
“Leaders in Tehran must know the United States means what we say,” Rice said. “If we do not respond when Iran’s close ally, Syria, uses weapons of mass destruction, what message does that send to Iran?”
As other administration officials have done repeatedly, Rice emphasized that the U.S. strikes would be limited and proportional. But unlike Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who suggested earlier Monday that any military action would be “unbelievably small,” a statement that drew condemnations from congressional hawks, Rice did not play down the potential U.S. use of force.
To the contrary, Rice suggested a strike to “degrade” Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons would “shake his confidence” about being able to maintain power through military force.
And if Assad were to consider launching another chemical attack on his own people even after a U.S. military response, Rice suggested the United States would be prepared to strike again — a position that other administration officials have not asserted as they attempt to assuage the public’s concern about being drawn into a broader conflict with Syria.
“If Assad were so brazen to use chemical weapons again, he would know we possess the capability to further degrade his capabilities,” she said.