Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On His Vote In Opposition To The Short-Term Continuing Resolution Including Authority For Arming Syrian Rebels

Mr.  President, the Senate is about to vote on a continuing resolution to fund the federal government from October 1 to December 11.  This vote should not be necessary.  There is no good reason why we are not voting on fiscal year 2015 appropriations bills to fund the government the way we used to, rather than a continuing resolution that keeps the government on autopilot despite many new and compelling needs. 

Chairwoman Mikulski of the Appropriations Committee and her counterpart in the House, Chairman Rogers, have made this argument as well as any two people could.  It is unacceptable that the Congress, which has the power of the purse, fails to use that power in a responsible manner.  Passing annual appropriations bills should be a priority for both parties, and I hope that between now and when this short-term CR expires, we can do our job and finish work on those bills – which were reported by the Appropriations Committee months ago – and send them to the President.

Nine months ago, when the fiscal year 2014 Omnibus was enacted, no one anticipated the Ebola epidemic which has infected thousands of people and today threatens all of Africa.  Thus, there is little funding available to combat it.  The Defense Department, USAID, CDC, and others are scrambling to reprogram funds from other important programs.

Nine months ago, no one envisioned the surge in young migrants from Central America, and so the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Justice, Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Agency for International Development are reprogramming funds.  But it is not nearly enough to address the horrific gang violence and endemic poverty in those countries that are contributing to the flood of refugees across our border. 

Nine months ago, did anyone here predict that ISIS would be routing units of the Iraqi army, beheading Americans, and seizing control of territory?  Did anyone foresee Russia’s intervention in Ukraine?  Did anyone foresee that we would be sending U.S. military advisors to Nigeria to help track down hundreds of school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram?  There is no money in the budget for any of this, so we are robbing Peter to pay Paul. 

Fiscal Year 2015 appropriations bills have been reported out of Committee with strong bipartisan support.  Let’s debate them.  Senators can offer amendments.  We can vote.  That is what we should be doing instead of kicking the ball down the road for another two and a half months. 

Obviously, we all recognize the need to keep the federal government operating.  As much as I disagree with this approach, I would vote for the continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown.  But this vote does far more than that.  It authorizes the President under title 10 of the U.S. Code to provide training and weapons to Syrian rebel forces.  In other words, we are authorizing U.S. military intervention in Syria’s civil war – which for the past two years the Administration has strongly advised against – and doing so by tacking that authority onto a short term spending bill to keep the government operating. 

As much as I believe the United States should support the fight against ISIS, and as much as I commend the President and Secretary Kerry for their efforts to build a coalition to that end, I am not convinced that the President’s plan to intervene in Syria can succeed.  There are too many unanswered questions about the composition, intentions, allegiances, and capabilities of the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels who, like the Iraqi militias that openly admit to atrocities, are accountable to no one.  

There is too little clarity about the White House’s intentions, particularly when there is talk of unilateral air attacks against ISIS by U.S. forces inside Syrian territory.  There has been too little discussion of the potential consequences of this strategy for the brutal Assad regime which also opposes ISIS, for the anti-ISIS coalition, or for Iran’s or Russia’s ability to expand their influence in that region.  

We have been assured that recipients of U.S. military equipment are vetted and that the use of the equipment is monitored.  Yet we have seen U.S. military vehicles and weapons worth millions of dollars in the hands of ISIS and other anti-American groups in Iraq and Libya.  Who can say who else has gotten their hands on them, or that the weapons we provide the Syrian rebels will not be used against innocent civilians or end up in the hands of our enemies?

The House resolution we are voting on addresses this issue narrowly, requiring vetting only as it relates to association with terrorists or Iran.  It says nothing about vetting for gross violations of human rights, as would be required for assistance for foreign security forces under the Leahy Amendment.

The Administration says we need to defeat ISIS.  I don’t disagree.  ISIS is a barbaric enterprise that has no respect for human life and poses a grave threat to anyone it encounters, including Americans.  Yet that is what the previous White House said about al Qaeda.  A dozen years and hundreds of billions of dollars and many American lives later, al Qaeda is a shadow of what it once was but is far from defeated. 

Since 9/11, numerous offshoots of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have proliferated not only in South Asia but throughout the Middle East and into East and North Africa.  And one of those groups, formerly affiliated with al Qaeda, is ISIS.  Some say ISIS is worse than al Qaeda.  If ISIS is defeated, who comes next?   

Not long ago the President said the sweeping 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks should be repealed, yet the White House recently cited it as a basis for attacking ISIS.  Alternatively, the White House says the President has the authority he needs under the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force to defeat Saddam Hussein.  No objective reading of those resolutions supports that conclusion.  Yet here we are about to embark on another open ended war against terrorism, albeit, thankfully, without U.S. ground troops. 

We can help combat ISIS, and we must, but the governments of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and others in that region – some of which have vast oil wealth – need to show they share that goal at least as much as we do, not just by their statements but by their actions. 

They should take the lead.  We can support them, although Saudi Arabia, besides being a major oil supplier, has one of the world’s most repressive governments and Saudi charities have been a steady source of revenue for extremist groups.  One has to wonder whether such alliances help or hurt us in in the long run.

I have thought hard about this.  It is far from black and white.  I deeply respect the President.  In the end, he may be right.  But I worry about the slippery slope we may be starting down in the thick of a sectarian civil war.  I am not prepared – on a stop-gap, short-term spending bill, containing authority drafted by the House of Representatives, in the waning hours of the day of adjournment, and with no opportunity for amendments – to endorse a policy that will involve spending hundreds of millions and almost certainly billions of dollars over multiple years to train and arm Syrian fighters who may or may not share our goals or values. 

Not in a part of the world where past U.S. military interventions with similarly vague goals involving similarly questionable allies have consistently turned out very differently from the Pollyannaish predictions of former Pentagon and White House officials. 

Time and again we have been assured of relatively quick and easy success, only to pay dearly over the course of protracted, costly wars that fell far short of their lofty goals and unleashed forces of hatred that no one predicted.    

Year after year, the Administration asked Congress for billions of dollars to support former Iraqi President Malaki’s government.  Yet the White House now concedes that his sectarian policies, and the widely reported abuses of the Iraqi army that the U.S. trained and equipped, were a cause of the resentment and divisions that contributed to the rise of ISIS and threaten to break Iraq apart.       

The Iraq War was a disaster for this country.  The families of Americans who gave their lives or were grievously injured will suffer the consequences for many years to come.  It caused lasting damage to our national reputation and to the image and readiness of our armed forces.  Yet I worry that other than trying to avoid another costly deployment of U.S. ground troops, we have learned little from that fiasco.  The Middle East is no place to intervene militarily without a thorough understanding of the history and the centuries old tribal, religious, and ethnic rivalries that have far more relevance than anything we might think we can achieve.  

Does that mean there is no role for the United States in that part of the world?  Of course not.  But rather than set goals that may or may not be realistic but will almost certainly have profound and potentially dangerous unintended and unanticipated consequences, let’s have a real debate that thoroughly considers all the options, all the costs, all the pros and cons.  This is far too important a decision to be dealt with in such a cursory manner.

So I will vote no, with the hope that in November or December we will revisit this issue, and have the real debate we are avoiding today.   

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