Thursday, September 12, 2013

Senate Foreign Relations chair skeptical of Putin plan

WASHINGTON — Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez said he hopes diplomacy succeeds in settling the confrontation with Syria over the regime\'s use of chemical weapons, but he has doubts that it will.

\"I\'m skeptical,\" the New Jersey Democrat said Thursday in an interview with USA TODAY\'s \"Capital Download\" newsmaker series.\"I\'m skeptical of an (Syrian President Bashar) Assad who until just a few days ago said he never even had chemical weapons. I\'m skeptical of a (Russian President Vladimir) Putin who has vetoed every effort at the Security Council to try to get a peaceful resolution. I\'m skeptical of whether Putin is willing to submit this whole effort to a Security Council resolution and what enforcement mechanism is there going to be.

\"But I think the world and our own nation needs to see whether or not this is real.\"

That may well become clear within days, he said, after meetings today in Geneva between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart and a report from United Nations investigators next week. \"I think the combination of both will lead us to a moment in which we\'ll know whether this is real or not,\" he said.

If diplomacy works, the Assad regime will have turned over its chemical weapons stores, a significant achievement. If it doesn\'t work, he predicts President Obama will have an easier time winning congressional authorization for the use of military force than he did over the past two weeks. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution, but Obama\'s request seemed headed toward defeat by the full Congress.

\"I think a lot more people who wanted to see a diplomatic track be exhausted feel more comfortable, from my conversations, with voting for an authorization\" that would be conditioned on the failure of efforts in the U.N., the senator said. \"So it might actually strengthen the possibility of having an authorization.\"

He acknowledged that he was \"a little surprised\" that Obama decided to seek a congressional OK before launching strikes, noting that the War Powers Resolution would have allowed the president to proceed with military action for 60 days.

Menendez, 59, was elected chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January after seven years in the Senate and seven terms in the House of Representatives. The son of Cuban immigrants, in 2003 he became the first Hispanic to be elected to a leadership post in Congress. He is the highest-ranking Hispanic in the Senate.

Among the former members of the committee he now chairs: Obama, Vice President Biden, Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — a shared resume that Menendez said gives them some special insight into the dynamics of administration-congressional relations on such issues.

Menendez, interviewed in the committee\'s stately hearing room, expressed outrage against Putin for an op-ed published in Thursday\'s New York Times that called U.S. military interventions \"ineffective and pointless\" and questioned the idea of American exceptionalism. The senator called it a \"transparent\" effort \"to somehow create doubt, confusion, divide the American public, divide the American Congress,\" but he said it was more likely to create a backlash.

\"His overall piece ... made me pretty nauseous,\" Menendez said. \"I have to be honest with you: For someone who rose through the KGB to be the head of it, to suggest what would be in the best interests of the United States is something I just can\'t accept.\"
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