A punitive assault on Syria will be launched as soon as the end of the week, but not before details of the strike have been relayed to all the senior members of Congress entitled to advance notice of such military action.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made that much clear this morning. He echoed the other hawkish former senator with a top foreign policy job in the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry, leaving no doubt that air strikes are inevitable and relatively imminent.
The Pentagon has moved four destroyers into the eastern Mediterranean and has fighter jets and bombers on standby “to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take,” Hagel told The BBC, adding, “We are ready to go.”
One predicate to the strike is that the United States will formally declare, probably by the end of the day, that its intelligence agencies have conclusive evidence that Bashar Assad’s government launched a large-scale chemical weapons attack in the 2-year-old Syrian civil war.
In addition to consultation calls with top congressional Republicans, including Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Bob Corker, President Barack Obama has also been reaching out to foreign leaders in hope of shaping a broad international coalition to support those strikes. (The United Nations would not bless military action because of the veto power of Russia, which is sympathetic to the Assad regime.)
The administration believes that the relatively limited military actions it envisions does not require advance permission from Congress — only a heads-up to members of the leadership.
Some conservative Republicans strenuously disagree, and are sure to complain after the coming strikes that Obama has broken his constitutional vows and far exceeded his powers as commander in chief.
But Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck made plain on Monday that the House leader disagrees with those people in his ranks, and that there’s no chance lawmakers will be called back early from their August recess to debate an authorization resolution.
“The speaker made clear that before any action is taken there must be meaningful consultation with members of Congress, as well as clearly defined objectives and a broader strategy to achieve stability," Buck said.
The hint there is that GOP leaders are already looking beyond the punitive, but limited strikes, and hoping the administration has a plan to sell Congress in the fall — whether formally or informally is not yet clear — for helping stabilize the Syrian situation without resorting to more intense and risky forms of intervention.
Getting the military involved is not at all popular with the voters; a Reuters poll this week found only 25 percent favoring an intervention in light of the chemical weapons attack. And many lawmakers expect that if Assad is toppled, he will be replaced by an extremist regime that would not behave more to the U.S. government’s liking.