Menendez Blows Smoke on Syria

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez denies that his Committee is overstepping bounds in trying to dictate the direction of U.S. involvement in Syria -- but he is wrong.

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Reuters/Gary Cameron

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez takes on Washington Post veteran reporter Walter Pincus this morning with a Syria-related letter to the editor in this morning's paper. Menendez writes "his wrongheaded commentary fell into an oversimplified story line that Congress is broken."

I think Menendez doesn't get what Pincus is saying, which was:

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.

Menendez confirms Pincus' point in his letter this morning by writing, "In crafting this bill, which passed 15 to 3, the committee sought to tip the scales against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and toward groups working to build a free Syria."

The United States Senate is not Constitutionally tasked with fighting wars or crafting core strategies for the nation. The country hired Barack Obama to do that. The Senate can offer counsel or fund or de-fund, hold hearings and highlight issues, but not tie the executive branch's hands with strategic decisions.

What Menendez' letter is missing is any sense at all that he has a workable vision for Syria in mind. There is no evidence that he understands what nearly all other observers note -- even great friends of the Syrian resistance -- that opposition to Assad is highly fragmented, that the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra front is one of the few Syrian opposition operations currently making headway against Assad. When it comes to al-Nusra in Syria, the enemy of our enemy remains our enemy -- but Senator Menendez does not seem to include this group in his fantasy vision of what the Syrian resistance is comprised of.

Senator Menendez writes that "vital U.S. interests are at stake, including Middle East stability and the need to secure chemical weapons and to deny a haven for extremists."

He is wrong. One of the problems with the horrible, heart-breaking situation in Syria is that it is not nearly as vital to American national interests as Menendez claims.

When it comes to chemical weapons, it would be helpful perhaps for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman to convene hearings on the "chain of custody" doubts that linger about the documented use of chemical weapons in Syria. Bring experts to the table to discuss. Bring those from the U.S., Jordanian, Turkish, and Israeli intelligence establishments to share their signals intelligence on what we know and don't know about Syrian command staff reactions to the use of chemical weapons. That would be a constructive role for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Menendez' stewardship.

When it comes to Middle East stability, there are options the West may take that could make the Syrian conflict a much worse destabilizer of the region. Where is Menendez' suggestion that options need to be considered in terms of costs and benefit.

Foreign policy is not a sentimental sport, not something to be played emotionally. Reason and careful calculation about interests and possible outcomes are required in all cases where American resources -- financial, material, or soldiers -- are deployed.

In the case of Syria which is devolving into a sectarian nightmare, there is an internal civil war progressing with a proxy conflict sitting on top. The situation defies simple-minded approaches. America's equities in the region -- with Israel, Jordan, Turkey -- need to be weighed, and the contests for power with Russia and China over a future Syria, and the impact on Iran's regional pretensions, all are key factors.

Robert Menendez might go spend some time with unemployed workers in New Jersey, whose plight has been worsened by the high levels of federal debt America has amassed in fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and ask what further economic erosion is worth more joblessness, more lack of investment in New Jersey's infrastructure, more kids denied opportunities in Head Start programs. The Syrian situation is serious -- but unless concerned nations come to a consensus on what an end game with Syria would realistically look like and have a good sense on who exactly the "heroes of the revolution" inside Syria are likely to be, then the options for action are minimal.

Walter Pincus was right on target in his critique of Senator Menendez' actions in the Foreign Relations Committee. The Committee is headline-grabbing at the moment, and piling on with actions that tweak emotional chords.

Menendez, in his role as Chair, is engineering none of the things necessary at the moment to actually highlight both the strategic options and consequences of various Syria scenarios. That would actually be useful.