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Harf: If Congress Doesn’t Authorize on Syria, Message Sent That Assad Can Act With Impunity

State spokeswoman: We don't believe Congress will vote against military action

• September 6, 2013 4:18 pm

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State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf put the onus on going forth with military action against Syria on Congress during her briefing Friday, saying failing to authorize President Obama to order strikes would send a message to Bashar al-Assad that he could use chemical weapons with impunity.

Last week, Obama said in the Rose Garden that he would go to Congress because he wanted to, not because it was mandatory.

Secretary of State John Kerry, during a tense exchange with Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) Wednesday, said Obama already had the constitutional authority to act, with or without approval from Congress. Then on Friday, Obama would not directly answer questions about whether he would not order strikes if he failed to receive authorization from Congress.

Harf's remarks seemed to walk the administration's stance back even further, although she said no matter what Congress said, Obama felt military action should be taken.

"Rallying international support, getting authorization from Congress and speaking in one voice as a nation is clearly all a part of this," Harf said. "If Congress doesn't authorize it, we'll be sending the exact opposite message to Assad that he can get away with this and he can do this with impunity again and again and again, and America won't stand up and stand behind its words when it says what it intends to do."

Harf expressed confidence Congress would see things the administration's way when Associated Press reporter Matt Lee posed the hypothetical that it would turn out the opposite way.

"We don't believe that that will be the outcome from this vote," she said. "We're going to keep working with Congress to get to the right place. The president's made it clear that the United States needs to step up and respond here. And now it's up to the United States Congress to make that clear as well."

Lee challenged her point, saying that if she felt congressional approval would show America was acting with one voice, then a "no" vote would logically show the opposite. Harf demurred.

"Not at all, because the president obviously would still believe that we should do it," she said. "What I think it would show to the rest of the world, quite frankly, is that America's not willing to stand by what it says, and when we say we need to take action to protect international norms, that the United States Congress isn't willing to stand by that. I think that's the message it would send to the world."

LEE: Do you believe that what you are doing right now is a deterrent to Assad using chemical weapons again?

HARF: In what — what actions are you referring to? My briefing today?

LEE: No, I mean, whatever it is —

HARF: OK, specifically what, actually?

LEE: Whatever it is the administration's policy is.

HARF: Well, I think —

LEE: Is what the administration doing right now in taking this to Congress — is that acting as a deterrent to prevent Assad — do you think it's acting as a deterrent to prevent Assad from —

HARF: Well, I'd make a few points. First, the president's announcement that we will — his intention to take military action absolutely is part of our effort to deter Assad from doing this again — rallying international support, getting authorization from Congress and speaking in one voice as a nation is clearly all a part of this.

And let's flip it around on its head, that if Congress doesn't authorize it, we'll be sending the exact opposite message to Assad that he can get away with this and he can do this with impunity again and again and again, and America won't stand up and stand behind its words when it says what it intends to do.

LEE: Do you believe that the country, through Congress, is speaking with one voice right now?

HARF: That's the point of getting authorization. We've all been clear that we speak most strongly on the international stage when we speak with one voice, and it would be much more powerful if we have the president backed up by the United States Congress saying, this cannot stand, and this is our response.

LEE: It would be, but that's not what you have right now. And there is an argument, I think, that one could make that when you have such disagreement — and wild disagreement — and this is not even — you know, this is — the president's — some of the president's strongest supporters are against this; some of — some of the biggest hawks on the Republican side are against this, and I think that you could — someone could make the argument that that kind of fractious debate actually undermines the credibility of the country, because it shows Assad and the Iranians and the North Koreans that the — that the — that Congress isn't united and that the country isn't united around this.

HARF: Well, let's be clear, even if we hadn't gone to Congress for authorization, there would still be a lot of incredibly heated debate and discussion. So that is not necessarily a product of us going to Congress; that just exists in our democratic political system every single day.

LEE: Well, yes, but the suggestion from this morning was that that indecision or that division could prevent the U.S. from — or would prevent the U.S. from acting. And so that's why —

HARF: But what we're focused on in terms of what Assad and Tehran and Pyongyang and everyone else sees is the outcome of this. If at the end of the day we get to a place where we say after a democratic debate and discussion, we as the United States of America, despite our vast political differences, can stand up to Syria and say this is unacceptable, that that has a much stronger impact not just on Syria but across the world than not going to Congress.

LEE: But you spent a lot of time and effort putting together a case that the administration — or the administration spent a lot of time and effort putting together a case that it believes is rock- solid, 100 percent, and is justification for the president's decision to actually take some military action. And I think the argument could be made that then taking it to Congress — the president not taking an executive decision, which is in, you say, his authority, taking it to Congress and then exposing the wild — the huge divide over taking military action doesn't enhance — doesn't enhance the credibility at all. Are you — you're gambling that in the end, even — that you will win and that the vote will be sufficient enough to show that a large majority of the American people, through their representatives, are in favor of this. Is that correct?

HARF: Well, we believe that when the Congress authorizes this action, America will be speaking with one voice and that what Assad —

LEE: OK.

HARF: Let me finish, Matt. And what Assad feels in terms of our response will not be a pinprick. He will know it when it happens — this will be more than just what some people have talked about — and that America speaking with one voice as we take those actions has much more credibility around the world, not just to Syria, not just to Iran, but also with our international partners than otherwise.

LEE: Right. And then turning it on its head, if Congress votes no, America will also have spoken with one voice. Is that correct?

HARF: Again, we don't believe that that will be the outcome from this vote. We're going to keep working with Congress to get to the right place. The president's made it clear that the United States needs to step up and respond here. And now it's up to the United States Congress to make that clear as well.

LEE: I understand. But if you're going to say that a congressional vote to give the authorization will show that America's speaking with one voice, then surely the converse has to be true, that if the Congress doesn't authorize it, America is also speaking with one voice.

HARF: Well, not at all because the president obviously would still believe that we should do it. What I think it would show to the rest of the world, quite frankly, is that America's not willing to stand by what it says, and when we say we need to take action to protect international norms, that the United States Congress isn't willing to stand by that. I think that's the message it would send to the world.