Panetta does not preclude U.S. military action in Syria

Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee grilled Defense Secretary Leon Panetta this week on whether Obama would take military action in Syria without their approval.

Unrest and oppression in Syria under the totalitarian Assad regime has created a fraught question for lawmakers on the role of the U.S. in the struggle.

Senate Armed Services Committee members John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) published a joint statement Thursday urging the Obama administration to take strategic steps to alter the balance of power within the nation.

“Changing the military balance inside Syria requires the United States, in close coordination with our Turkish, Arab and other allies, to provide the Syrian opposition with the help they are pleading for to defend themselves,” they wrote. “This can include training and equipping the Syrian opposition with weapons, providing them with tactical intelligence, and using airpower to target Assad’s command-and-control and help the Syrian opposition to create safe zones inside Syria.”

In a HASC hearing the same day, Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said he wouldn’t recommend military intervention, in light of Defense budget straits, unless national security was threatened.

Panetta hedged the administration’s bets, saying the U.S. would act only with the approval of the international community, but not precluding the possibility of military action.

“Our approach must keep all options on the table, while recognizing the limitations of military force,” he said. “We must be prepared to take all actions that are required.”

Panetta also said the nation’s recent experience intervening in Libya was helping to inform its approach to Syria, in analyzing global consensus, what the U.S. can contribute, and legal basis for intervention.

It wasn’t a comparison that pleased HASC members Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and Randy Forbes (R-Va.).

Jones was part of a bipartisan group of legislators that sued Obama and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in federal court, alleging they had violated the Constitution by initiating military action in Libya without a declaration of war from Congress. The two Congressmen sought assurances from Panetta Thursday that unilateral action would not happen again in Syria.

“The American people seem to agree that we in Congress have not exerted our constitutional responsibilities when it comes to war,” Jones said. “My hope is the president would feel an obligation to the American people to justify why we are taking that kind of action.”

Panetta said Obama would act pursuant to the War Powers Act if opting for military intervention, but would not promise to secure Congressional approval before taking such action.

“The Constitution indicates that the Commander-in-Chief should act when the American people are in jeopardy,” he said.

Forbes pressed Panetta further, wondering why the administration would give assurances that they would secure the approval of the global community before taking action, but would not do so for Congressional approval.

The administration “would take steps” to seek approval from Congress, Panetta said, if the decision was made that military action was warranted.

“As long as I am secretary, we won’t take any action without the proper authority,” he said.

Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, and HASC leaders did agree that the best scenario avoided U.S. military intervention in Syria altogether, placing pressure on the Assad regime through other nations and with economic sanctions instead, while providing humanitarian aid to the Syrian people.