Risch explains why ‘doing nothing’ on Syria is best option

Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch says U.S. national security would be hurt, not helped, by a military attack on Syria.

“There are no good answers here,” Risch said Thursday in a meeting with Idaho reporters. “But my judgment is the risk of doing something is worse than the risk of doing nothing.”

Risch said he feared that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be emboldened by an attack that fails to remove him from power. That, Risch said, could make it more difficult for a war-weary American populace to support a strike against Iran, a key Syrian ally, for its attempt to develop nuclear weapons.

“If Iran keeps down the road it is going down, it will get to a point where the national security of the United States is in danger,” Risch said. “And that’s going to be a situation where something is going to have to be done. And if you do this (attack Syria), I think it undercuts our ability and for that matter our wherewithal and just our thought process about being able to do something as far as Iran is concerned.”

Risch was back in Boise after being in the minority of Wednesday’s 10-7 Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote to authorize a military strike to punish Assad for killing an estimated 1,400 Syrians in an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack. Risch predicted the Democratic-controlled Senate will approve the use of force, but said he can’t forecast the outcome in the Republican-controlled House.

A Washington Post analysis Thursday calls the House the “real hurdle” and says “things on that front are looking progressively dimmer for the Obama administration.” The Post’s count of 301 of the 435 House members shows 86 have said they are against military action and 93 lean that way. Just 19 have said they support an attack. Another 103 are undecided.

Idahoans are “strongly, strongly opposed” to President Obama’s proposed attack, Risch said, likening his constituent response to gun control and immigration reform. “People are lit up on this,” said Risch, the No. 2 Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and No. 3 on the Intelligence Committee.

If a U.S. attack precipitates Assad’s ouster, that could put the country’s weapons in the hands of U.S. enemies including al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front and Muslim Brotherhood.

“If this attack unseats the Assad regime, it puts radicals in control of those weapons of mass destruction, what is the plan to keep weapons on mass destruction out of the hands of some very, very, very bad people?” Risch asked. “I’m not getting answers to that that are adequate, other than it will be alright. And I’m not satisfied with that.”

Risch said he’s listened carefully as the Obama administration has made its case, but rejects the argument that U.S. credibility is at stake.

“If we do something and do what we’re doing — that is attack them militarily, leave the Assad regime intact — people in that part of the world are going to be wringing their hands and saying, ‘What is the deal here?’ Indeed, after the attack, Assad’s going to come out from under his rock, he’s going to beat his chest and he’s going to say, ‘Look, I stood up to the American war machine — the biggest, the most powerful in the world — and I’m still here.’ So, in my judgment, I think that hurts our credibility worse than actually doing nothing.”

Had “one American person” been attacked with WMDs, “or any American interest, or any of our allies, this would have been an absolute no-brainer for me and I would have come down differently,” Risch said.

“But to say that in a civil war somebody used an inappropriate method of killing people, when they’d used other methods of killing a whole lot more people, we should be in there to do something — and do something that may badly destabilize the region, and which, if chaos breaks out there and some bad people get their hands on weapons of mass destruction — I think the risks far, far outweigh any benefits.”

Risch said he participated in a teleconference with Senate colleagues on Friday, who were briefed for 30 minutes by three White House officials.

“The was no doubt in my mind as I listened to that that the president was ready to pull the trigger,” Risch said. “Indeed, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he would have pulled the trigger immediately after the phone call. It was that urgent.”

But Risch said the briefers ran into a “buzz saw,” first from Democrats, then Republicans, who said the Constitution and the War Powers Act demand that presidents seek congressional approval before initiating an act of war. On Saturday, Obama changed course and asked Congress for authority to attack.

If Congress withholds approval and no attack takes place, Risch said America’s standing won’t suffer. “We are the 800-pound gorilla on the face of this planet when it comes to military power. Every country in the world understands that. And we aren’t an 800-pound gorilla by a little bit. We outrank everybody by a whole lot. Everybody understands that and I don’t think that’s going to be damaged at all.”

Risch’s colleagues in the all-GOP Idaho delegation also are wary of a military strike. But Sen. Mike Crapo and Reps. Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador have not yet said what they’ll do when it comes time to vote.

Unless Americans, American interests or American allies are attacked, Risch said, his vote will be the same when the resolution reaches the full Senate.




Dan Popkey came to Idaho in 1984 to work as a police reporter. Since 1987, he has covered politics and has reported on 25 sessions of the Legislature. Dan has a bachelor's in political science from Santa Clara University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. He was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association and a Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. A former page in the U.S. House of Representatives, he graduated Capitol Page High School in 1976. In 2007, he led the Statesman’s coverage of the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise. Dan helped start the community reading project "Big Read." He has two children in college and lives on the Boise Bench with an old gray cat.

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