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Senate panel oversteps on Syria

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By Walter Pincus
Saturday, May 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has injected itself into U.S. foreign policymaking regarding Syria. And 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.

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. Trying to legislate what President Barack 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 15-3 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 last 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 of Tennessee, 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 “facilitating 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 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 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?”

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.

Walter Pincus is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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