Democrat Wants Limits On Syria Strike

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Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) says the the resolution that the White House has proposed for authorizing the use of force in Syria gives the military too much "running room." Hollen joins All Things Considered host Robert Siegel to explain.


We're going to turn now to Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland. He has criticized the resolution that the White House has proposed for authorizing the use of force in Syria, saying it leaves too much running room and needs to be narrowed. Welcome to the program once again.

REPRESENTATIVE CHRIS HOLLEN: It's good to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: How would you narrow it? What are some necessary limitations on U.S. military action?

HOLLEN: Well, I would narrow it in at least four ways. First of all, it needs to be absolutely clear that no American soldiers can be put on the ground in Syria. The resolution, as written, would authorize the president to put U.S. military personnel on the ground. He has said that's not his intention, but the resolution would allow it.

Number two, there's no end date on this authorization. This authorization would be open-ended in time. Third, this authorization, as drafted by the administration, would allow continued military strikes forever, even if Assad and the Assad regime doesn't use chemical weapons again. And finally, the purpose should be limited to preventing and deterring the use of chemical weapons.

SIEGEL: But Congressman Van Hollen, how do you balance the desire to circumscribe U.S. action in Syria with the interest that the strikes and the threat of action will be so punitive as to have a deterrent effect on the Syrian leadership?

HOLLEN: Well, I think you can achieve that balance without putting American soldiers on the ground, number one. Number two, you will have achieved the objective of deterring chemical weapons if Assad doesn't use them again. So there's no reason to authorize continued military action, even if there's no further use of chemical weapons in Syria. And I think it's very important to put a definitive end point on an authorization like this, so it doesn't run on for years and years.

SIEGEL: You've stressed the limitations and the narrowing of the authorization. From what I'm hearing you say, you do believe something should be done, something must be done about Syria...

HOLLEN: I believe something should be done. And I should point out that back in the 1980s, late-1980s, I was a member of the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and together with a colleague traveled to the Iraq/Turkish border. At the time, Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons against the Kurdish population. He had used chemical weapons against Iran during the Iran/Iraq war.

At the end of that war, having gotten away with use of chemical weapons there, he turned poison gas against the Kurds. And we recommended at the time, this is in the late-1980s, that the United States send some kind of signal, take action to prevent the further use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein. The United States Senate actually passed economic sanctions legislation. The House did not.

The Reagan administration opposed taking action. And I've always believed that if the international community and the United States had taken some kind of action in the late-1980s, Saddam Hussein would not have been emboldened to take the reckless actions he later did in places like Kuwait and elsewhere. And I always found it ironic that the United States went to war on false pretenses that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction in 2003, when he did not have them, but failed to take any action in 1988 when he actually used them.

SIEGEL: Is it your understanding that if either house votes against authorizing a strike against Syria, that President Obama will refrain from ordering one?

HOLLEN: I don't know what the administration has said on that point. As somebody who believed that the president had the constitutional authority as commander in chief to take very limited action on his own, I nevertheless believe that if Congress says no to authorizing military force in Syria, then the present administration should not proceed.

SIEGEL: They should not proceed.

HOLLEN: They should not proceed. It would be a big mistake to say that our country is stronger when we act together, the president and the Congress, and then for the president to turn around and act unilaterally after asking Congress for this grant of authority.

SIEGEL: That's Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland. Congressman Van Hollen, thanks for talking with us.

HOLLEN: Thank you.

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