WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s limited attempt to end more than two years of bloodshed in Syria and his insistence on U.S. assistance to a strife-riven Egypt have exposed deep divisions in Congress, with pockets of grudging support countered by fierce opposition toward greater American military and financial involvement among Democrats and Republicans alike.
The uneven reaction is partly a reflection of the Obama administration’s own uncertain foreign policy path as it sorts out America’s role in an increasing sectarian conflict in Syria that threatens the entire Middle East. The ouster of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, also created a web of considerations related to advocating democracy or U.S. national security goals. Lawmakers too are grappling with these questions.
Options for the U.S. military in Syria, from arming groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad to establishing a no-fly zone, carry risks and billion-dollar price tags, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a sober assessment this week that gave some lawmakers pause.
And such guidance has created an unusual crisscrossing of positions among liberals and conservatives in Congress and fiscal hawks and military hawks. The tea party’s libertarian leanings have split the once firmly internationalist Republicans; some Democrats formerly averse to intervention are more amenable to forceful action under Obama.
Congressional efforts to cut off funds for Syria and Egypt were expected to be put to a vote on Wednesday as the House debates a $598.3 billion defense spending bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. On Tuesday, a Senate panel approved aid for Egypt, with conditions.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he still believes the United States should arm Syria’s rebels but expressed reservations about a no-fly zone or any other military action.
“I don’t want to get into a situation where escalation is very easy,” Corker told reporters on Tuesday. “When you start a no-fly zone, you’re flying overhead and you’re seeing tanks on the ground killing people, what then do you start doing? For me, moving to that point easily takes us to a place where escalation can occur.”
Corker was scathing in his criticism of the administration for refusing to outline publicly its plans for arming Syrian opposition fighters. He said he requested a private briefing from the White House earlier this week, only to be denied.
“It’s an embarrassment for this administration to want to do the things they want to do covertly so that they don’t talk with the American public,” he said.
Another Republican, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, said he is opposed to any American intervention, including providing weapons to vetted Syrian rebels, irrespective of the costs.
“It’s a very messy civil war with some bad people on both sides and maybe some good people on both sides,” Paul said. “I’m not in favor of sending arms or weapons or boys or girls to fight some war for stalemate.”
That position is completely opposed by others in his party, such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The Democrats are split as well between interventionists such as Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan to opponents including Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and many liberal House members.
The conflict in Syria has killed an estimated 93,000 and displaced millions, taxing the resources of neighboring Jordan and Turkey and prompting Israel to strike several times at what it claims were weapons convoys to the militant group Hezbollah. Syria’s fighting has spilled over to Lebanon, a country with a long history of sectarian warfare.
Obama opposed providing any lethal assistance to Syria’s rebels until last month. His administration is now moving ahead with sending weapons to vetted rebels after securing the approval of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, which had initially balked at the plan to use covert funds.
“Their effort to help the right set of rebels in Syria is in our nation’s best interest,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Tuesday at a Capitol Hill news conference.
The White House acknowledged Tuesday that momentum in the conflict has shifted as Hezbollah and Iran have helped Assad’s forces.
“Because of the support he’s gotten from other bad actors in the region, that assault has intensified,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
But Carney refused to spell out any details of the administration’s plan. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki demurred as well.
Obama and his national security team still have yet to say publicly what weapons they’ll provide the opposition and when they’ll deliver them. No official has even acknowledged publicly that lethal assistance to the rebels is now coming after millions of dollars in humanitarian aid and political support.
Pressed by Congress, however, Dempsey outlined the range of options the Obama administration is considering. He said a no-fly zone to protect Syrian rebels would require hundreds of U.S. aircraft at a cost as much as $1 billion per month. Creating a buffer zone for the rebels would probably require U.S. ground troops and cost a similar amount, he said.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, wasn’t put off by the projected costs of tougher action.
“If you come to the conclusion it’s in the interests of national security, there is always going to be a price,” said Menendez. At some point, he added, the question becomes whether doing nothing costs even more.
Graham said a no-fly zone “would be the best billion dollars we ever spent to change the tide of war.” And McCain on Tuesday delivered a withering critique of Dempsey’s assessment, calling it “most disappointing.”
“Why is it the Israelis can do it without hundreds and hundreds of aircraft and submarines? What Gen. Dempsey is doing is portraying a scenario that obviously no one would contemplate,” McCain said.
Still, McCain told reporters he was dropping his threat to block Dempsey’s nomination for a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because Obama has a right to choose his advisers.
Congress has been similarly divided on Egypt since the military’s July 3 overthrow of the government, suspension of the constitution and arrest of Morsi — though not along the same fault lines.
While the Obama administration has expressed concern with Egypt’s trajectory, it has insisted on continuing to provide $1.3 billion in mainly military assistance to the country. Some lawmakers believe the aid violates a U.S. law forbidding assistance after military-backed coups, while some even question whether the payments remain in America’s national interests.
A House panel last week proposed eliminating all U.S. funds to Egypt unless Secretary of State John Kerry certifies that the country is upholding its peace treaty with Israel, stamping out smuggling to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and moving toward free elections and democracy. Unlike existing law, it eliminates the administration’s ability to waive the conditions on national security grounds.
That doesn’t go far enough for some Republicans, who will ask the House on Wednesday to consider an amendment prohibiting any U.S. funds for military or paramilitary operations in Egypt.
Citing the coup law, Paul has introduced a separate bill in the Senate to halt U.S. aid to Egypt. The legislation is unlikely to pass, even if members such as McCain and Levin have expressed similar sentiments.
A compromise included in the Senate’s fiscal 2014 foreign operations bill may carry the day. It allows the administration to waive conditions on most of the money allocated to Egypt, but withholds 25 percent until democracy returns and the rights of women and minorities are protected. A Senate Appropriations panel passed the measure unanimously by voice vote Tuesday.
“We can’t ignore what’s happening on the ground,” Graham said. “But surely you don’t want a failed state in Egypt or a radical Islamic nation. And I think we can avoid both by staying engaged with the military and the people of Egypt — but on our terms, not theirs.”