Week In Politics: Debate Over A U.S. Strike In Syria

Melissa Block talks with political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor for The National Review. They discuss the latest political wrangling over military intervention in Syria.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And now with their thoughts on Syria and what the United States should or should not do, columnist E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Hey, E.J.

E.J. DIONNE: How are you?

BLOCK: And filling in this week for David Brooks, Ramesh Ponnuru with National Review. Ramesh, welcome back.

RAMESH PONNURU: Thanks.

BLOCK: And let's start with you, Ramesh. You have written that military action against Syria would have no clear objective, no legal basis, no public support. You say stay out. Why?

PONNURU: Well, I think we're in a situation where people have this urge to do something and this is something, so therefore let's do that. And I don't see what the strategic objective is. If we're going to punish the Syrian regime and hold it accountable, that, it seems to me, is an argument for regime change, which we're not willing to do because it's such a massive commitment. Anything short of that, on the other hand, just, to me, seems sort of pointless.

BLOCK: And by contrast, E.J., you say something short of that does have a point. What is that point?

DIONNE: Yeah. I very reluctantly think we need to act. It's not just that President Obama boxed himself in by drawing a red line, although he did do that and I think his standing depends a lot on living up to what he actually said. But he drew that red line for a reason, which is that when chemical weapons are used, and God forbid, against your own people, this is breaching a very important international norm.

Having said that, this is full of peril. I think the most hopeful view is that we might with strikes weaken President Assad's military enough that it might encourage him to the negotiating table, but there's no easy, you know, it's not easy to expect that but it would be the best scenario.

BLOCK: Well, let's listen to some more of what Secretary of State Kerry had to say today. He has some very impassioned remarks, laying out what he called clear and compelling evidence that Syria is responsible for those chemical weapons attacks. And he asked, what is the risk of doing nothing.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: It matters because if we choose to live in the world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will.

BLOCK: And when he mentions those others, he refers to Iran, Hezbollah, North Korea feeling emboldened if the U.S. doesn't act. Ramesh Ponnuru, isn't that a very real danger here? What message do you think would be sent to Bashar al-Assad and others if the U.S. does nothing?

PONNURU: Well, what's the message sent if the U.S. undertakes a basically symbolic action? Isn't the message then, you know, look, you can do these things and then the U.S. will undertake some basically ineffectual action, but you will stay in power, the U.S. won't even try to get you out of power? It seems to me that, again, that's an argument for regime change. It's not an argument for a limited strike.

BLOCK: E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, first of all, I don't know that we can assume that the action is ineffectual. It's not like he is going to be throwing missiles into a lake somewhere. And so I think part of what they're trying to figure out is how can they have an attack which on the one hand doesn't suck us completely into the civil war, but on the other hand, has some real impact on his military.

And we're going to see how they figure that out. But I think Ramesh's comments and the comments of some conservatives reflect a fundamental political problem that the president has, which is that Democrats always include a very large group of doves who just won't want to do this even if Barack Obama is president.

On the other hand, Republicans are far more willing to rally to the president when their guy is in power. I looked up some numbers. Recent NBC poll, just out, shows that only 41 percent of Republicans say they'd support this strike. It goes up a little bit if you say it's a limited strike.

When we started the Iraq War in March of '03, 91 percent of Republicans supported that. So the president can't count on a big chunk of his own party, and Republicans, who I think would support this under another president, won't support it under President Obama.

BLOCK: Ramesh Ponnuru, would they support it under a Republican president, do you think?

PONNURU: Well, you know, I think the Iraq War parallel is an interesting one. Keep in mind with Iraq, you know, there's obviously in retrospect lots of arguments about how that debate went wrong, but there was debate. It was a prolonged debate. It occupied months where it was the number one issue on the public agenda.

This, by contrast, hasn't had a lot of groundwork laid for it. It's not just that there isn't Republican support, there just isn't a lot of public support. There was majority public support for going into Iraq in 2003. Again, I just don't see the level of commitment you'd need to undertake an action of this kind.

DIONNE: One thing, by the way, I think Ramesh and I may agree on is I do think there should be a congressional debate on this. And I think that it's not just up to the president to call Congress back. I think that Speaker Boehner and Harry Reid should call people back. I think a lot of members of Congress are hoping to duck a vote on this because they know it's unpopular and they don't want to take responsibility for it.

I think it would be better if there were a congressional debate. It helped president - the first President Bush in the war with Kuwait, even though the vote was very close, because we really argued it out.

BLOCK: We're talking one day after a shocking defeat in Britain for British Prime Minister David Cameron with the House of Commons defeating a watered-down measure, one that wasn't even going to authorize strikes themselves. Ramesh Ponnuru, how damaging is it to President Obama and the United States to not have Britain at its side, to be effectively going it alone?

PONNURU: I think it makes it a lot harder for the administration to go forward with this because, you know, we talked a lot during the Iraq War about the coalition of the willing, but everybody knows that it was primarily a U.S.-British show. And this time, that's not going to be the case because Cameron didn't just say I'm going to take this under advisement. He didn't even put in a qualifier that I could come back to Parliament if the situation changes. He said look, we're just not going to participate.

BLOCK: He said I get it.

PONNURU: Right.

BLOCK: E.J.?

DIONNE: My favorite comment on this came from a tweet from Russ Douthat, the New York Times columnist, who said from now on all English muffins will be known as freedom muffins. And I think what's interesting about that, it's not only that I thought it was funny, but that the ferocity you had against countries that didn't cooperate with us the last time, freedom fries about the French, does not exist now because there is a lot of doubt about this.

And I also - as I said, I think our conservative friends don't support this. But this is much harder without the British, who are our close allies. Thirty-nine members of Cameron's coalition deserted him on this. They really have Iraq fatigue and also dodgy dossier deceit fatigue from the last time around.

BLOCK: Last word, Ramesh, briefly.

PONNURU: Sure, it's not just the intelligence, it's the Pottery Barn rule is the other legacy of Iraq, that people think if you get involved, does the state in Syria just disintegrate, and we're left picking up the pieces.

BLOCK: The idea being if you break it, you buy it. Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor with National Review and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; E.J. Dionne with The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, thanks so much.

DIONNE: Thank you.

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