WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's limited attempt to end more than two years of bloodshed in Syria and his insistence on U.S. assistance to a strife-riven Egypt have exposed deep divisions in Congress, with pockets of grudging support countered by fierce opposition toward greater American military and financial involvement among Democrats and Republicans alike.
The uneven reaction is partly a reflection of the Obama administration's own uncertain foreign policy path as it sorts out America's role in an increasing sectarian conflict in Syria that threatens the entire Middle East. The ouster of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, also created a web of considerations related to advocating democracy or U.S. national security goals. Lawmakers too are grappling with these questions.
Options for the U.S. military in Syria, from arming groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad to establishing a no-fly zone, carry risks and billion-dollar price tags, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a sober assessment this week that gave some lawmakers pause.
Congressional efforts to cut off funds for Syria and Egypt were expected to be put to a vote today as the House debates a $598.3 billion defense spending bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. Today, a Senate panel approved aid for Egypt, with conditions.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he still believes the United States should arm Syria's rebels, but expressed reservations about a no-fly zone or any other military action.
"When you start a no-fly zone . . . and you're seeing tanks on the ground killing people, what then do you start doing?" Corker said yesterday. "For me, moving to that point easily takes us to a place where escalation can occur."
Corker was scathing in his criticism of the administration for refusing to outline publicly its plans for arming Syrian opposition fighters.
Another Republican, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, said he is opposed to any American intervention, including providing weapons to vetted Syrian rebels, irrespective of the costs.
"It's a very messy civil war with some bad people on both sides and maybe some good people on both sides," Paul said. "I'm not in favor of sending arms or weapons or boys or girls to fight some war for stalemate."
That position is completely opposed by others in his party, such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
The Democrats are split as well between interventionists such as Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan to opponents including Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and many liberal House members.
President Barack Obama opposed providing any lethal assistance to Syria's rebels until last month. His administration is moving ahead now with sending weapons to vetted rebels after securing the approval of the House and Senate Intelligence committees.
"Their effort to help the right set of rebels in Syria is in our nation's best interest," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters yesterday.