POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Sen. Menendez Says U.S. Should Take Action in Syria to Send a Message About Chemical Weapons

Since evidence has surfaced that Syrian President Bashar al Assad used chemical weapons against civilians, American officials are debating whether the United States should get involved. Sen. Robert Menendez, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told NJ Today Mike Schneider that he believes the U.S. should strike Syria to send a global message.

“If in fact we allow Assad to use chemical weapons as he has now twice and do it with impunity and no consequence, then we send a global message to those that have chemical weapons in their possession can use them against innocent civilians without consequence, and that is a message that we cannot afford in our own national security interest, in the national security interest of critical allies and of our soldiers across the globe,” Menendez said.

The Senate Foreign Relations committee voted to arm the vetted, moderate elements of the Syrian opposition with bipartisan support, according to Menendez, which didn’t happen. Now, he said, he believes the U.S. should strike against targets that the regime values and would cause significant loss so they would think twice about using chemical weapons again. He added that a more expansive effort might be possible if the U.S. is joined by allies.

“Going after all the different chemical weapon sites inside of Syria, rendering those chemical weapons useless, that would be broader. But in any event, whether it be surgical strikes against assets of the regime that can cause them great consequence and going after the chemical weapons, I think those are necessary to do because of the global message that will be sent,” Menendez said.

One question that remains is whether President Barack Obama would need to seek congressional approval before taking action. Menendez said he would like to see Congress join together and support action, but Obama has options available. “For example, under the chemical weapons convention under the Geneva Convention there are clearly legal international standards under which he could operate there. As well as, even in President Clinton’s own standard that was used in Bosnia. So there is precedent here. But I would love to see the Congress be convened and ultimately support such an action,” he said, adding there currently is no plan for an emergency session of Congress.

Some have ruled out going before the United Nations because they believe representatives of Russia and China won’t approve action against Syria. Menendez said he believes the U.S. will try that route and believes the British will be promoting a resolution that the U.S. will likely support. He said the biggest problem will be the Russians.

“The Russians are patrons of Assad in Syria. The Russians have their own interests there. The Russians are willing to put their interests beyond an international standard of not using chemical weapons against innocent civilians. And I think if 10 angels came swearing from above that said Assad used chemical weapons against his citizens as the world largely believes, the Russians would find a way to say that the angels lie,” Menendez said. “So I think with their veto power at the UN, we would be stymied and there’d be global consequences as a result of that.”

In the past, Menendez has been outspoken about the U.S. needing to reset its relationship with Russia. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin has the Cold War mentality. “He’s KGB. The reality is is that he has a mindset that is totally different than his immediate predecessor, President Medvedev, which we made some progress on. And so the bottom line is until Russia changes its calculus, we need to act understanding that Russia is thinking in a different way these days than it has in the immediate past,” he said.

Those who question a military strike look back to 2007 when Obama, who was serving as a senator, talked about the need for then-President George Bush to get congressional approval for military actions. Menendez said times and circumstances always play a role.

“The reality is we’re not talking about boots on the ground. We’re not talking about the kind of invasions that President Bush led. That’s significantly different. We’re talking about how many people must die, how many chemical weapons will be used before the world acts? And there is one indispensable leader in the world. And that is the United States of America. And so that is both our challenge and our burden, but is also, from my view, our responsibility,” Menendez said.