Attention In Washington Shifts To Syria And Chemical Weapons

The Obama administration has acknowledged that chemical weapons have been used in the war in Syria. That assessment has unleashed a wave of criticism of the president's handling of the Syrian situation.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Years ago, President Obama famously called the U.S. invasion of Iraq a dumb war, a controversial conflict launched over fears of weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be untrue.

MONTAGNE: That history makes the situation in Syria especially awkward for the U.S. President Obama warned of action against Syria's government if it used weapons of mass destruction. He called it a red line.

INSKEEP: And the U.S. has now acknowledged evidence that Syria did, in fact, use chemical weapons in its civil war, which leaves a question that we'll put to Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Mondays for analysis. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: The question is very simple: Now what?

ROBERTS: Well, now what, indeed. The president is very hesitant to do anything, and the Iraq example is stark before him. Also, there's no evidence that even if chemical weapons were used, that it was widespread. The Obama administration says there's no, quote, "chain of evidence" on this question. But there is this sense that the whole world is watching, and if you just let it go, it could be a major disaster.

Here's Senator Lindsey Graham on CBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "FACE THE NATION")

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: There's nothing you can do in Syria without risk. But the greatest risk is a failed state with chemical weapons falling into the hands of radical Islamists, and they're pouring into Syria. The longer this goes, the more likely you'll have a failed state and all hell's going to break loose in the region. It's a disaster for the region. It's going to be a disaster for the world.

ROBERTS: Adding that classified information strengthens the evidence of chemical weapons used, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said yesterday that the red line that President Obama drew cannot be a dotted line. And it's not just the Republicans criticizing the president here, Steve. A former member of the Obama administration, Anne-Marie Slaughter, had a scathing op-ed in The Washington Post yesterday.

There's a real worry on the part of foreign policy advisers that if the president does nothing here, it sends an awful message to Iran and North Korea. I mean, it's the classic parental warning: You know, if you do X, Y will happen. And then Y has to happen.

INSKEEP: Well, Anne-Marie Slaughter has talked a lot about the responsibility to protect, this whole notion that maybe we have more humanitarian responsibilities in the world than we think. There are strategic interests here. But what would the president's critics have him do? Do they want to send in troops? What do they want to do?

ROBERTS: No, although Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill says you don't want to rule that out. The term of art at the moment is: No boots on the ground. But there's some talk of bombing airbases, creating safe havens in the country with no-fly zones. Look, this is all very hard, and nobody really knows what to do - which is why the administration, of course, is hesitating.

There's hope that Russia would lean on Assad to decamp. Members are talking about giving the right weapons to the right people, but they have no idea who that is and how to do that. But there is this sense that not doing anything and allowing the slaughter of tens of thousands of Syrians could ignite the Muslim world, destabilize Jordan and Lebanon. So, you know, the fear is that doing nothing is worse than doing something.

INSKEEP: We're talking - as we do most Mondays - with Cokie Roberts, working through some of the week's news.

And, Cokie, we found out an answer to a question in the last few days. The question was: What do you need to do to get Congress to get together and act? And I guess the answer is: have annoyed travelers at airports who are affected by federal budget cuts. Then Congress will act.

ROBERTS: Indeed, and act very quickly. In Washington airports last week, there was just strong lobbying going on at the gates from the people who are staffing the gates, saying if you don't like these waits, call your member of Congress. And Congress act very quickly to make sure that air traffic controllers are fully ramped up, and that sequestration does not affect them.

First it was meat inspectors, now air traffic controllers. I think you're going to see a lot of lobbying going on for lots of other things. But I suspect that the 70,000 kids who will be cut out of Head Start don't have a very strong lobbying force.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. We've just got a few seconds. Are there more things Congress could do to ease the pain, here?

ROBERTS: Well, sure. And you're going to hear cancer researchers are very much on the case. Some set of teachers are trying to lobby. And you'll, you know, the loudest voices will be heard, and will get their exceptions. But the real question is whether they can come up with something much more sensible than the sequestration to begin with, and that is what some are still working on, but don't hold your breath.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much, as always. That's Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Mondays.

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