US lawmakers divided on foreign policy issues
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is facing a divided Congress as he makes a limited attempt to end more than two years of bloodshed in Syria and insists on continued U.S. assistance to a turbulent Egypt.
Members of both top political parties are questioning greater U.S. military and financial involvement. It’s a reflection of the Obama administration’s uncertain foreign policy as it sorts out America’s role in an increasing sectarian conflict in Syria that threatens the entire Middle East.
The ouster of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, also raised questions related to advocating democracy and U.S. national security goals.
Options for the U.S. military in Syria, from arming groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad to establishing a no-fly zone, carry risks and billion-dollar price tags, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week.
Congressional efforts to cut off funds for Syria and Egypt were expected to be put to a vote on Wednesday as the House of Representatives debates a $598.3 billion defense spending bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
On Tuesday, a Senate panel approved aid for Egypt, with conditions.
Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he still believes the U.S. should arm Syria’s rebels but expressed reservations about a no-fly zone or any other military action.
“I don’t want to get into a situation where escalation is very easy,” Corker told reporters on Tuesday.
Corker was scathing in his criticism of the administration for refusing to outline publicly its plans for arming Syrian opposition fighters.
Another Republican, Sen. Rand Paul, said he is opposed to any U.S. intervention. “It’s a very messy civil war with some bad people on both sides and maybe some good people on both sides,” Paul said.
That position is completely opposed by others in his party, such as Sen. John McCain, a former presidential candidate.
Democrats are split as well between interventionists and opponents.
The conflict in Syria has killed an estimated 93,000 and displaced millions, taxing the resources of neighboring Jordan and Turkey and prompting Israel to strike several times at what it claims were weapons convoys to the militant group Hezbollah. Syria’s fighting has spilled over to Lebanon, a country with a long history of sectarian warfare.
Obama opposed providing any lethal assistance to Syria’s rebels until last month. His administration is now moving ahead with sending weapons to vetted rebels after securing the approval of the House and Senate Intelligence committees.
“Their effort to help the right set of rebels in Syria is in our nation’s best interest,” House Speaker John Boehner, the most powerful Republican in Congress, told reporters Tuesday.
The White House acknowledged that momentum in the conflict has shifted as Hezbollah and Iran have helped Assad’s forces.
Obama and his national security team still have yet to say publicly what weapons they’ll provide the opposition and when they’ll deliver them.
Pressed by Congress, however, Dempsey outlined the range of options the administration is considering. He said a no-fly zone to protect Syrian rebels would require hundreds of U.S. aircraft at a cost of as much as $1 billion per month. Creating a buffer zone for the rebels would probably require U.S. ground troops and cost a similar amount, he said.
McCain on Tuesday delivered a withering critique of Dempsey’s assessment, calling it “most disappointing.”
“Why is it the Israelis can do it without hundreds and hundreds of aircraft and submarines?” McCain said.
Congress has been similarly divided on Egypt since the military’s July 3 overthrow of the government, suspension of the constitution and arrest of Morsi.
The Obama administration has insisted on continuing to provide $1.3 billion in mainly military assistance to the country. Some lawmakers believe the aid violates a U.S. law forbidding assistance after military-backed coups, while some question whether the payments remain in America’s national interests.
Some Republicans will ask the House on Wednesday to consider an amendment prohibiting any U.S. funds for military or paramilitary operations in Egypt.
A compromise included in the Senate’s fiscal 2014 foreign operations bill may find support. It allows the administration to waive conditions on most of the money allocated to Egypt, but it withholds 25 percent until democracy returns and the rights of women and minorities are protected. A Senate Appropriations panel passed the measure unanimously by voice vote Tuesday.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Bradley Klapper, Richard Lardner and Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.