Thornberry Criticizes Obama Administration’s Shift in Syria Policy

New chairman of House Armed Services Committee will push to repeal sequestration

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria / AP
January 20, 2015

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas), the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, criticized the Obama administration on Tuesday after a report indicated that officials would be content with a settlement in the Syrian civil war that leaves President Bashar al-Assad in power.

U.S. officials have urged Assad to step down since the conflict began in 2011, but the New York Times reported on Monday that the administration and some Western diplomats are considering negotiations that could preserve a post-war role for the authoritarian leader. The U.S. military has also focused its bombing missions in Syria and Iraq on the Islamic State (IS), and is training Syrian rebels to fight the terrorist group—rather than Assad’s forces—in a war that has claimed more than 200,000 lives.

Thornberry expressed concern about the apparent shift in U.S. policy toward Assad, noting that President Obama had already failed to uphold a self-imposed "red line" when he reversed a decision to strike the Syrian regime in 2013 after it used chemical weapons.

"You need to be really careful about drawing red lines," he said at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) event. "If you draw a red line, and then you don’t live up to it, your credibility goes down."

Thornberry said he would apply a similar philosophy to the defense budget—not making promises he could not fulfill—as he takes charge of the committee this year. But moving toward the repeal of cuts known as sequestration will undoubtedly be a top priority, he said. The total defense budget has decreased by 21 percent since 2010 after adjusting for inflation.

"That’s a real cut and the world is getting more dangerous," he said.

Thornberry, who has developed a reputation as a pragmatist among congressional Republicans, acknowledged that it would be difficult to craft a proposal eliminating sequestration that appeals to the Senate, White House, and members of his own party dedicated to reduced spending. "I’m for what can pass," he said, while acknowledging the lack of a consensus. The sequestration spending caps remain in place despite persistent efforts by retired Rep. Buck McKeon (R., Calif.), the outgoing chairman, to remove them.

The White House and Pentagon have shifted funds to the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund in recent months to circumvent the spending limits and continue the fight against the Islamic State. Some lawmakers say OCO spending has now become a "slush fund" for normal military operations rather than emergencies, and Thornberry said he would push to move more of the spending back to the base budget.

Thornberry compared the current international environment to that of the 1930s, when "threats were large" but "budgets were tight." Carl Vinson, chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee during that period, insisted on building three aircraft carriers during peacetime that would later prove crucial to the Allied victory in the Battle of Midway.

"Just the sheer number of ships you have is a big deal," Thornberry said. The Defense Department also needs to do a better job of preparing for the emerging threats of the 21st century, including space and biological attacks, he said.

Still, Thornberry said the Pentagon must substantially improve its process for acquiring new equipment and weapons systems. He cited the example of the Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter which went under initial development in the 1980s but was not introduced until 2005.

Thornberry’s remarks suggest he will place a renewed emphasis on more efficient spending at the Pentagon, a priority also highlighted by Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"Things have to change," Thornberry said.