WASHINGTON -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell slammed President Barack Obama over his handling of Syria and declared he would oppose a resolution authorizing the use of force against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"I will be voting against this resolution -- a vital national security risk is clearly not at play," McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a Senate floor speech Tuesday, after laying out in detail how he thought Obama had botched the issue and why that made the decision difficult for McConnell.
"This debate has been made more difficult because even those of us who truly want to support the commander-in-chief have struggled to understand the purpose of the mission," McConnell said.
"No one should be faulted for being skeptical about this proposal, regardless of what party they’re in, or for being dumbfounded at the ham-handed manner in which the White House announced it. There is absolutely no reason to signal to the enemy when and how, and for how long, you plan to strike them -- none. As I’ve said before, you don’t send out a save-the-date card to the enemy," McConnell said.
The resolution currently on the table in the Senate, a measure that passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, would authorize a bombing campaign lasting up to 90 days and would bar any U.S. "boots on the ground" in conducting the mission.
Early on, full Senate approval of airstrikes against the Assad regime seemed likely, but McConnell now joins a growing list of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle opposing the proposed action. He's also the first of Congress' four top leaders to oppose the resolution. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) all back punishing Assad for allegedly killing more than 1,400 civilians in an Aug. 21 gas attack.
The limited scope of the proposed authorization to use military force was meant to reassure Americans that the nation would not become entangled in yet another Middle Eastern war, while still asserting the U.S. claim to moral leadership in the face of atrocity.
But McConnell said Tuesday that such a limited plan made no sense. Although the measure also calls for the administration to present a broader plan within 30 days of the resolution being enacted, McConnell said there simply were too many blanks that need to be filled in.
"There are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria, including the fact that this proposal is utterly detached from a wider strategy to end the civil war there, and on the specific question of deterring the use of chemical weapons, the president's proposal appears to be based on a contradiction," McConnell said.
"Either we will strike targets that threaten the stability of the regime -- something the president says he does not intend to do -- or we will execute a strike so narrow as to be a mere demonstration," said McConnell, adding that the lack of a clear plan was a serious problem.
In his looming 2014 reelection bid, the Senate minority leader is facing a tea party primary challenger who has come out against a Syrian strike. Many others associated with the tea party, including McConnell's fellow Kentucky senator, Rand Paul (R), oppose military action against Assad -- although McConnell insisted there was no "political calculus" in his decision.
"I've spent a lot of time weighing all these things. I've thought a lot about America's obligations, and the irreplaceable role that I've always believed, and still believe, America plays in the world," McConnell said. "I've also thought a lot about the context, about this president's vision, and his record, and what it says about whether we should be confident in his ability to bring about a favorable outcome in Syria. Because how we got to this point says a lot about where we may be headed."
How we got here, according to McConnell, was through shoddy foreign policy. Calling the president a "very reluctant commander-in-chief," McConnell said Obama's "humbler," "gentler" approach to foreign policy has been marked by a series of retreats and missteps that have left the world more dangerous. He argued that a limited strike in Syria could have many unpredictable, unintended consequences, from provoking Assad to use more chemical weapons to weakening Assad in such a way that lets al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel groups grab those weapons.
McConnell's solution was to adopt a broader, more hawk-like foreign policy, though he did not offer a specific suggestion for dealing with Syria.
"This one punitive strike we're debating could not make up for the president's performance over the past five years," McConnell said.
"If this episode has shown us anything, it's that the time has come for the president to finally acknowledge that there's no substitute for American might," he said. "It is time for America to lead again, this time from the front."
One of Obama's allies in the push for a resolution, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), took to the Senate floor moments later, saying McConnell was overlooking Obama's foreign policy successes.
"To stand here and criticize this president as some reluctant warrior is unfair," said Durbin, noting that Obama had ended the war in Iraq, was ending it in Afghanistan and had attacked al-Qaeda aggressively, including killing Osama bin Laden.
Durbin added that in Obama's case, reluctance has been wielded well. "Reluctant, yes, but wise -- I want a wise warrior, too," Durbin said.
He also faulted McConnell for criticizing the president for seeking a congressional vote, noting that many in Congress wanted just that and that Congress has a responsibility to debate issues of war and peace.
"You can't on the one hand criticize this president for stepping up and saying we need to take action, if necessary, to stop the use of chemical weapons, and then on the other hand say he's the reluctant warrior," Durbin said, adding, "How in the world do you recognize those two points of view?"