Rep. Smith On Syria: What Is The Limitation Of U.S. Power?

Steve Inskeep talks to Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, about the U.S. role in Syria. Smith, who recently visited Syrian refugees in Jordan, is urging the administration to step up aid to moderate opposition forces, but he has reservations about U.S. military action.

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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. Here's a simple reality of democracy. The president can ask people for support and if they give it, he's stronger. But they can also say no. That's the reason that presidents have often launched military action without a formal vote in Congress.

MONTAGNE: President Obama is taking the risk of asking for support and in the coming days, we'll hear many voices about the wisdom of striking Syria. One is Rep. Adam Smith, from Washington state. He's the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. He recently traveled to the Syria-Jordan border.

INSKEEP: Smith is convinced President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. He is less convinced about what to do.

REP. ADAM SMITH: There's no question that what Assad has been doing has been awful and hideous, but what are the limitations on U.S. power, in terms of our ability to go in there and fix other countries? I mean, this is one of the lessons we learned in Iraq.

And one of my other, broad concerns is at what point do we stop being responsible for every problem in the world? I was struck, when I was in the Middle East and also talking with people, that we seem to be damned if we do and damned if we don't. Everybody blames us for everything over there. And I think we need to take a step back and say look, we don't have the support of the Arab League on this. We don't have the support of the U.N. We don't have the support of NATO. I think this is an international responsibility, not necessarily just a U.S. responsibility.

Now, that's on one side of it; that the argument that the president makes - and it's reasonably compelling - is that if we strike Assad, that is saying that it is, in fact, a red line on chemical weapons. You will pay a price for it, and that that is a discouragement going forward. I just - you know, military action can often have unforeseen consequences, and will it really change behavior? It's a very, very difficult call.

INSKEEP: One way that your question could lead, Congressman, is actually to a larger U.S. involvement. If a one-time strike might not be enough, maybe the answer would be a much broader involvement. That might be one place the logic leads.

SMITH: Right. And that is something that I don't think anybody wants to do. I mean, the president is adamant that this is a one-time strike, that we're not looking for a broader engagement here. But does it drag you down that road? If a one-time strike doesn't work, well OK - well now, we've got to do more. And I think the lack of support from the international community and the lack of support, frankly, from people in that neighborhood, that makes it much more difficult.

INSKEEP: Is that, in fact, the situation the United States is in? If this country decides to strike at Syria and it doesn't work, the United States will, in fact, have to do more? You can't just be ineffective, in this circumstance, if you're going to get involved.

SMITH: That's a concern. Or if we choose not to do more, then we will have accomplished nothing. We will still be criticized for not having solved the problem, but we will have run the risk of escalating the violence. And, you know, who knows? I mean, I don't know if Hezbollah or Syria or somebody would respond to this by attacking us in some way, but there is that risk.

INSKEEP: You also raise the question, when do we stop being responsible for all the problems in the world...

SMITH: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...which is a perfectly fair question, although someone might also pose the opposite: There are 100,000 people dead. You've visited the region. You know this very well, in a visceral way, I'm sure. Don't we have some responsibility, given that we have a powerful military, to try to do something?

SMITH: Yeah. I met with some of the refugees, and I'm incredibly sympathetic for their situation. But we went through this in the Sudan - you know, in Central Africa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There has been like, some 5 million people killed over the course of the last 12 years, in a variety of different civil wars. And the thing that I always want us to be cautious about is: Are we in a position to actually effect that sort of change? I think the strength of our military is great, but the military does not necessarily solve a problem like this.

INSKEEP: Is part of the approach you describe accepting that maybe the United States can really do nothing in this situation?

SMITH: Well, I think part of it is accepting the fact that what we can do might not be enough, that there is no immediate solution to it. There's all kinds of countries throughout the world that are suffering internal strife. These are all awful things, all things that we wish hadn't happened. But can we create a situation where the U.S. is, as the cliche goes, the global policeman that's going to somehow going to step in there and fix all of these problems? I'm quite certain that the answer to that is no, we can't; we have to be selective about what problems we can fix. The question is: Is this one where this particular action is worth it? And that's what we're going to be debating in the next week.

INSKEEP: Washington state Democrat Adam Smith is the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Thanks very much.

SMITH: Thank you for the chance.

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