Senator Tom Udall Expresses Skepticism about Proposed Strikes on Syria

Yesterday, during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) said he has grave reservations about further U.S. intervention in Syria and asked tough questions about whether the administration’s planned bombing campaign would further pull the United States into the Syrian civil war.

“We’re being told we’re bombing in order to send a message, but what message are we sending?” Udall said during the hearing with Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“To the international community, we’re saying once again, the United States will be the world’s policeman. You break a law, and the United States will step in. We are on shaky international legal foundations with this potential strike,” Udall continued. “And we need to know whether we exhausted all diplomatic and economic sanction options to affect Syria’s behavior.”

Among the steps Udall would like to see the United States take is to push Russia and China to stop supporting Assad’s regime.

“I don’t believe we should have given up so easily,” Udall said in one exchange with Kerry during the hearing. “We haven’t taken Russia to task. We haven’t taken China to task.”

Today’s hearing was the first of several briefings that will take place – both classified and public – before the full Senate votes on whether to approve the administration’s proposed Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Syria.

While Udall has not decided how he will vote on the proposal, he is skeptical of greater intervention in Syria’s civil war, which he fears will lead to further escalation of the conflict. He is weighing the facts presented in this week’s briefings and will consider the final text of the AUMF before making a final decision.

Udall said today that he wants answers to a number of questions, among them:

  • How can we prove to the American people, who are skeptical after years of war in the Middle East, that we mean it when we say that we are committed to a limited strike that does not include ground forces?
  • If we weaken Assad, will we strengthen the extremist forces in Syria – which are potentially even more dangerous?
  • Why haven’t we tried harder to gain international support through the United Nations and push Russia and China to drop their support for Assad?

Udall has been a vocal opponent of sending heavy weapons to the Syrian rebels and further embroiling the United States in the Syrian civil war. In a speech from the Senate floor on June 17, 2013, he cautioned against action in the Middle Eastern civil war and was one of only three senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to vote against arming an unorganized rebel insurgency in Syria.

On June 20, 2013, he introduced bipartisan legislation with Senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Rand Paul (R-KY) to prohibit the president from using any funds on activities that would escalate U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war.

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Udall successfully included an amendment to the Senate FY 2014 Department of Defense Appropriations bill that would prevent the use of defense funds for any military action in Syria in violation of the War Powers Act. The amendment was approved by the full Senate Appropriations Committee by a bipartisan vote of 20-10 on August 1, 2013, but it was not voted on by the full U.S. Senate.

Watch and share today’s video.

The following is Udall’s opening statement as delivered:

Like everyone here, I deplore what Bashar al-Assad has done to his own people. By attacking them with chemical weapons, Assad has committed an atrocious crime so heinous that international law singles it out as an assault deserving of international action. Let there be no mistake: I fully agree his horrific acts deserve an international response.

But what should that response be? That is why we are here today – to ask that question and many others. And I hope this hearing will do more than just rubber stamp a decision that has already been made by this administration.

I have grave concerns about what the administration is asking of us, of our military, and of the American people.

Here’s the situation as I see it. With limited international support, we are being told the United States must retaliate for the use of chemical weapons with a “surgical” bombing campaign of our own.

We’re being told we’re bombing in order to send a message. But what message are we sending?

To the international community, we’re saying once again, the United States will be the world’s policeman. You break a law, and the United States will step in.

We are on shaky international legal foundations with this potential strike. And we need to know whether we exhausted all diplomatic and economic sanction options to affect Syria’s behavior.

We need to increase our attention on the source of Assad’s ability to continue to ruthlessly kill his own people – and that is support from nations including Russia and China, who are cynically trying to hold the moral high ground. Assad would not be able to maintain his grip on power if he were not being supported from outside. The full force of international outrage should come down on those nations that are refusing to allow the UN to act and find a solution.

Finally, I see this potential bombing campaign as a potential next step toward full-fledged war. We’ve been here before.

The Iraq war began as an international effort to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. And then years of a no-fly zone and airstrikes to prevent Saddam from threatening his neighbors or reconstituting his arsenal of chemical weapons. And as we all know, this limited military action eventually led to what is one of the biggest blunders in U.S. foreign policy. A war that I voted against.

Many who voted for it came to regret that vote. Americans are understandably weary.

After the fiasco of Iraq and over a decade of war, how can this administration make a guarantee that our military actions will be limited? How can we guarantee that one surgical strike will have any impact other than to tighten the vice grip Assad has on his power – or allow rebels allied with al-Qaeda to gain a foothold in Syria?

I take our role here extremely seriously. And I will hear the president and his team out. The president made the right decision to pursue an Authorization for Use of Military Force. I hope these hearings will give the American people the answers they deserve.

But there are troubling questions that need to be answered.