WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration began a full-press
campaign Sunday for congressional approval of its plan to carry out
a punitive strike against the Syrian government.
The lobbying blitz stretched from Capitol Hill, where the
administration held its first classified briefing on Syria open to
all lawmakers, to Cairo, where Secretary of State John Kerry reached
Arab diplomats by phone in an attempt to rally international support
for a firm response to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the
suburbs of Damascus.
Mr. Kerry appeared on five morning talk shows, announcing new
evidence -- that the neurotoxin sarin had been used in the attack
that killed more than 1,400 people -- and expressing confidence that
Congress would ultimately back the president's plan for military
Behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, the administration presented
classified intelligence to any senator or House member who wished to
attend. About 80 did, but some from both parties emerged from the
briefing convinced that the draft language authorizing military
action would need to be tightened.
The rush of activity came a day after President Barack Obama's
surprise decision to seek the authorization of Congress for a strike
on the Syrian government.
Ahead of an Arab League meeting in Cairo, Mr. Kerry sought to
mobilize backing for U.S.-led military action at a meeting the group
held Sunday night.
A statement that was issued by the league asserted that the
Syrian government was "fully responsible" for the chemical weapons
attack and asked the United Nations and the international community
"to take the necessary measures against those who committed this
To the satisfaction of U.S. officials, the statement did not
explicitly mention the U.N. Security Council or assert that military
action could be taken only with its approval. But it stopped short
of a direct call for Western military action against Syria.
As the meeting got underway, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince
Saud al-Faisal, urged the international community to stop the Syrian
government's "aggression" against its people.
Saudi Arabia has been one of the principal supporters of the
Syrian opposition, and Mr. Kerry consulted by phone Sunday with
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief and
secretary-general of its national security council.
The Obama administration's calculation has been that a call for
tough action by the Arab diplomats would enable the White House to
argue to members of Congress that it had regional backing for
military action and would make up, at least politically, for the
British decision on Thursday not to join the U.S.-led attack.
But Syria's government on Sunday defiantly mocked Mr. Obama's
decision to turn to Congress, saying it was a sign of weakness. A
state-run newspaper, Al Thawra, called the action "the start of the
historic American retreat" and said Mr. Obama had put off an attack
because of a "sense of implicit defeat and the disappearance of his
In some measure, part of the challenge that the Obama
administration faces in trying to rally support at home for a
punitive strike in Syria is the result of the deep ambivalence it
has expressed about becoming involved in the conflict.
Part of the White House strategy for securing congressional
support now is to emphasize not only what Syria did, but also how a
failure to act against Syria might embolden enemies of Israel like
Iran and Hezbollah.
Mr. Kerry, in his five television appearances, also emphasized
that it was important for Congress to pass a measure authorizing the
use of force to send a firm message to nations like Iran that the
United States would not tolerate the fielding of a nuclear device
and to safeguard Israel's security. …