WASHINGTON – If Congress does not support President Barack Obama’s proposal to attack Syria in reprisal for using chemical weapons, Iran, Syria and their militant allies would be encouraged to press ahead with efforts to develop and use weapons of mass destruction, the White House chief of staff said Sunday.
Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iranian leaders “are watching closely what is happening in Washington,” chief of staff Denis McDonough argued on five Sunday TV talk shows as the White House stepped up its campaign to win support for an attack.
“If Congress wants to make sure that the Iranians, Hezbollah and others understand that you cannot have greater operating space to pursue weapons of mass destruction like the nuclear program in Iran, then they have to vote yes for this resolution,” McDonough said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Support for Obama’s position remains weak among lawmakers and foreign leaders, and the White House is struggling to make up ground lost over the past week as members of Congress were away from Washington in their districts, hearing mostly opposition to the proposed attack on Syria.
Many lawmakers say calls from constituents about Syria are running 10 to 1 or more against military action. While the administration appears to have majority support in the Senate, several informal counts of the House indicate only about two dozen lawmakers committed to voting yes. The number publicly committed to voting no is approaching the 218 needed to defeat the proposal in that chamber.
The administration is expanding its campaign with public appearances and private efforts to persuade members of Congress. Top officials have scheduled a series of meetings with lawmakers, who return to work today. Obama has scheduled a round of television interviews for today and a prime-time television appearance for Tuesday night.
As part of the administration’s effort, McDonough in his talk show appearances stressed the “unbelievable, horrendous” quality of Assad’s alleged chemical attack on Aug. 21, which the Obama administration says killed more than 1,400. All lawmakers should watch videos that the administration has gathered showing the effects of the chemical attack, he said.
Not approving reprisal against Syria could make U.S. troops vulnerable, he said.
Administration officials have been trying to marshal the most powerful arguments. They have compared Assad to Adolf Hitler, and contended that the decision facing the United States is like the one the British faced in Munich in 1938 of whether to appease or challenge Hitler.
Assad denies that his forces were responsible for the chemical attack. His government has said it believes the toxic substance, which the United States has identified as sarin nerve gas, was released by anti-government rebels eager to draw Western forces into the conflict.
McDonough said he understood Americans’ fear of another war in the Middle East, but argued that this military action would be nothing like those the United States undertook in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya.
He described it as a “targeted consequential, limited attack” that would not draw the United States into a deeper war but would deter Assad from further chemical weapons attacks.
The threat of such enforcement actions was responsible for suppressing most use of chemical weapons since World War I, he said.
While insisting that the goal was only to “degrade” Assad’s ability to deliver chemical weapons, he also conceded on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that a U.S. strike would have an impact on Syria’s civil war. “There is no question that momentum on the battlefield will be changed” by the planned strikes, he said.
CBS News said Sunday that it conducted an interview with Assad in which he threatened retaliation against the United States for any attack and denied using chemical weapons.
Interviewer Charlie Rose said on “Face the Nation” that Assad had told him in the interview that there would be retaliation from “people that are aligned with him.” The interview is to be broadcast tonight on PBS.