Feb. 10, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

The Multifaceted President

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — who  along with Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has led a push for a more aggressive posture — said Sunday the savagery isn’t surprising. “They will do anything, kill anyone and stop at nothing to hold onto power. And what is the response of the United States and the rest of the international community to this latest mass atrocity in Syria? More empty words of scorn and condemnation.”

The conflict is drawing more scrutiny from Congress, with several Members, including McCain, Lieberman and, this week, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) visiting refugee camps on the Turkish-Syrian border.

“Military intervention is inevitable” if diplomatic efforts to get Assad to step down fail, said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) on a trip to the region. “But I think that would require a lot of planning and discussion among the parties. A group of interested Gulf countries are already beginning to talk about that possibility, and it is very likely that the United States will be involved in that discussion.”

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said there are worries about arming the opposition, with some wondering whether it might include members of al-Qaida or other fundamentalists. Udall said ultimately the Syria situation comes down to Russia.

“As long as the Russians continue to support the al-Assad regime, I don’t see any fundamental change in any leadership of the country,” he said.

But Udall said there is a concern whether the White House and Congress are being too timid.

“Are we going to ask ourselves six months or a year from now were we too cautious, did we allow another set of circumstances [like those] that arose in the Balkans, or in Rwanda?” Udall wondered. “I ask myself that question every day. I know the president and the administration ask themselves that every day.”

Unless the Security Council acts more assertively, it’s not clear what steps Obama might be willing to take beyond cheerleading for peace. It’s clear the administration has no interest in getting dragged into another war in the Middle East, particularly in an election year and especially in a country as geopolitically tricky as Syria, which counts Russia and Iran as major allies.

Indeed, the administration still hopes talks with Iran on its nuclear weapons program amid tightening sanctions will avert another potentially more dangerous military showdown.

The White House seems far more comfortable talking about its war on terror and swatting away questions about whether the president’s “kill list” complies with the Constitution.

“President Obama made clear from the start to his advisers and to the world that we were going to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the American people from harm, and particularly from a terrorist attack,” Carney said Tuesday. “At the same time, the president also made clear from the outset of his administration that we were at all times going to act in a manner that was both lawful and consistent with our values. And he has done that in both cases.”

Meredith Shiner and Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.

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