By a 10-7 vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed an authorization for the use of military force in Syria today. The AUMF adopted by the committee appears to be similar to the draft I discussed in this post (though I have not yet seen the final text). However, the nonbinding Statement of Policy section of the the AUMF includes two amendments co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain. The key part of the second amendment reads as follows:
(a) It is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria.
(b) A comprehensive U.S. strategy in Syria should aim, as part of a coordinated international effort, to degrade the capabilities of the Assad regime to use weapons of mass destruction while upgrading the lethal and non-lethal military capabilities of vetted elements of Syrian opposition forces, including the Free Syrian Army.”
This amendment was inserted because McCain previously stated he wouldn’t vote for an AUMF if it was only narrowly focused on the need to deter future chemical weapons use. But since it is only part of the nonbinding policy section, it doesn’t actually increase the legal authority granted to the president, a point emphasized by McCain’s co-sponsor, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons. It’s also worth noting that the amendment is somewhat vague. If you take seriously concerns about the radical Islamist nature of many of the Syrian rebels, “chang[ing] the momentum on the battlefield” in a way that helps the rebels could actually undermine rather than further the goal of establishing “a democratic government in Syria.” The reference to strengthening “vetted elements” of the rebel forces in Section b is probably meant to address this problem; but what if it turns out that the “vetted elements” are not strong enough to cope with the radical Islamists? But perhaps this vagueness does not matter much, given that the amenmdent would not be legally binding anyway.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the 10-7 vote was relatively close, and that divisions cut across partisan lines. Seven Democrats and three Republicans (including McCain) voted “yes,” while five Republicans (including possible 2016 presidential contenders Marco Rubio and Rand Paul) and two Democrats voted “no.” Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey – until recently the long-time House member for the district including my former home of Lexington, MA – voted “present.” The extensive GOP opposition may not bode well for the AUMF’s fate in the House of Representatives, which has a Republican majority (though House Speaker John Boehner says he is supporting the president). Against the AUMF we see an interesting coalition between some of the most liberal Democrats and some of the most conservative and/or libertarian-leaning Republicans. Whether that coalition is strong enough to prevail in the House remains to be seen.
UPDATE: The text of the resolution passed by the committee is available here. It is indeed similar to the committee draft I wrote about yesterday, with two noteworthy exceptions. The most significant is the insertion of a fourth objective in Section 2 of the Resolution, which lists the purposes for which the president is authorized to use force. He would now be authorized to use force to “prevent the transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors within Syria of any weapons of mass destruction.” This would likely authorize him to use force against the Syrian rebels if it looks likely that they will capture or otherwise obtain WMDs from the Assad regime’s stockpiles. The other change from the previous draft is the adoption of the two McCain amendments, already noted above.