AIPAC finally appears on the syria war hawk horizon, but then gets edited out again

This is what the article looked like when it first went up on the NYT site yesterday morning:

McCain Urges Critturs to Back Obama’s Plan for Syria
Jackie Calmes, Michael Gordon, Eric Schmitt, NYT, Sep 2 2013

WASHINGTON — The White House pushed forward aggressively on Monday for Congressional approval of an attack on Syria as Obama got tentative support from one of his most hawkish Republican critics, Walnuts McCain, for a “limited” strike as long, Walnuts said, as the president did more to arm the Syrian opposition. After an hourlong meeting with Obama at the White House, Walnuts emerged with Lindsey Graham to say that the two senators’ discussions with Obama in the Oval Office had been “encouraging.” He also urged Congress to support Obama in his plan for military action in Syria, saying that a no vote would be “catastrophic” for the US and its credibility in the world. The words from Walnuts were a positive development for the White House and a critical part of the Obama administration’s lobbying blitz on Syria on Monday. The day got off to a start with a 70-minute telephone briefing to the House Democratic Caucus by Jackass Kerry, Sec Def Hagel, JCoS Dempsey, Susan Rice and DNI Clapper. There were 127 House Democrats on the call, nearly two-thirds of their total number. Democrats on the call said the debate was shifting away from whether the Assad government had used chemical weapons in a massacre last week, and more toward how should the administration should respond. Several Democrats said the material cited as evidence by the administration was persuasive. Representative Adam Schiff said in a telephone interview:

The debate is shifting away from, did he use chemical weapons, to what should be done about it?

There was also a strong sense on the call, Democrats said, that Obama needs to appeal directly to the US public, most likely in a prime-time address. On the call, Jackass took the lead, portraying the horrors of chemical weapons and underscoring the consequences of inaction. Dempsey reviewed possible targeting, and how the military is planning strikes that minimize threat to civilians. He also reprised the argument that delay does not help Assad despite his dispersal of troops and equipment. Clapper reviewed unclassified intelligence, particularly his view of why rebels could not have launched the poison gas attack. Rice played maestro and traffic cop and assigned questions from lawmakers to the briefers. Although Walnuts and Graham have been sharply critical of Obama that a strike he is planning on Syria would not be extensive enough, many more critturs in both parties have taken the opposite approach, saying they were wary of a strike on Syria, no matter how limited. On Tuesday, Obama is to meet with the leadership of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and their counterparts in the House. Administration officials said the influential pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC was already at work pressing for military action against Assad, fearing that if Syria escapes US retribution for its use of chemical weapons, Iran might be emboldened in the future to attack Israel. House majority leader Eric Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, has long worked to challenge Democrats’ traditional base among Jews. One administration official called AIPAC “the 800 lb gorilla in the room,” and said its allies in Congress had to be saying:

If the White House is not capable of enforcing this red line against the catastrophic use of chemical weapons, we’re in trouble.

Another official acknowledged having deep doubts when the president disclosed on Friday night his desire for a Congressional vote. He said he first thought, “Whoa, why are we doing this?” But by Sunday he had joined some other doubters in deciding the gambit was a good one, and would succeed. A third official said:

At the end of the day, we’re not going to lose the vote.

Given the risks, however, Obama’s White House team is wasting no time seeking the critturs’ support. Although Congress is still in its summer recess, some administration officials traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with House members who might be available and wanted a briefing on Syria. Briefers included deputy national security adviser Antony Blinken, who is a longtime aide to Biden; deputy DNI Robert Cardillo; Under-Sec Def for Policy Jim Miller; Under-Sec State for Policy Wendy Sherman and Vice-Admiral Kurt Tidd of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Obama and Biden will also be personally lobbying the critturs. The White House plans to rely on supportive Republicans with intelligence backgrounds like Mike Rogers and Saxby Chambliss for an assist. Although such tactics reflect an inside lobbying game, the White House will also pursue an outside game of trying to sway a skeptical US public, as appearances by Jackass on five morning talk shows reflected. In addition, Obama will use his trip this week to St Petersburg for the G-20 summit to publicly and privately press the case. Despite likely opposition from senators like Rand Paul, the White House is somewhat sanguine about winning the vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate, with support from a majority of Democrats and enough Republicans. The House is the greater worry, in part because even its Republican leaders, Cantor and Boehner, have had trouble in the past passing their own priority legislation in the face of independent-minded conservatives.

The rush of activity continues two days after Obama’s surprise decision to announce that he would seek the authorization of Congress for a strike on the Syrian government. Ahead of an Arab League meeting in Cairo, Jackass sought to mobilize backing for US-led military action at a meeting the group held on Sunday night. A statement that was issued by the league asserted that the Syrian government was “fully responsible” for the chemical weapons attack and asked the United Nations and the international community “to take the necessary measures against those who committed this crime.” To the satisfaction of US officials, the statement did not explicitly mention the UNSC or assert that military action could be taken only with its approval. But it stopped short of a direct call for Western military action against Syria. Before the meeting got under way, Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud urged the international community to stop the Syrian government’s “aggression” against its people. Saudi Arabia has been one of the principal supporters of the Syrian opposition, and Jackass consulted by phone on Sunday with Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief and secretary general of its national security council. The Obama administration’s calculation has been that a call for tough action by the Arab diplomats would enable the White House to argue to members of Congress that it had regional backing for military action and would make up, at least politically, for the British decision on Thursday not to join the US-led attack. But Syria’s government on Sunday defiantly mocked Obama’s decision to turn to Congress, saying it was a sign of weakness. A state-run newspaper, al-Thawra, called the action “the start of the historic US retreat” and said Obama had put off an attack because of a “sense of implicit defeat and the disappearance of his allies.” Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, told reporters in Damascus:

It is clear there was a sense of hesitation and disappointment in what was said by Obama yesterday. And it is also clear there was a sense of confusion, as well.

In some measure, part of the challenge that the Obama administration faces in trying to rally support at home for a punitive strike in Syria is the result of the deep ambivalence it has expressed about becoming involved in the conflict. Part of the White House strategy for securing Congressional support now is to emphasize not only what Syria did, but also how a failure to act against Syria might embolden enemies of Israel like Iran and Hezbollah. Jackass in his television appearances said that if Congress passed a measure authorizing the use of force, it would send a firm message to Iran that the US would not tolerate the fielding of a nuclear device, and thus safeguard Israel’s security. Jackass said on NBC News’ Meet The Press:

I do not believe the US Congress will turn its back on this moment. The challenge of Iran, the challenges of the region, the challenge of standing up for and standing beside our ally Israel, helping to shore up Jordan, all of these things are very, very powerful interests and I believe Congress will pass it.

Israeli officials have been concerned by Obama’s decision, but have been mostly restrained in their public comments. Jackass talked on Sunday with Netanyahu. Both the House and Senate are expected to have votes sometime after they return from recess on Sep 9, although Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, said the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would convene hearings on the Syrian issue Tuesday afternoon. While Jackass said he was confident Congress would vote to approve the use of force, Peter King, a former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that if a vote in the House were held today, Obama would likely lose as a result of the “isolationist wing.” Much of the debate in Washington concerned the terms of the resolution the White House has proposed for authorizing the use of force. Representative Chris Van Hollen said that while the administration’s resolution limited the purpose of an attack to stopping the use of weapons of mass destruction, the measure left the military too much “running room” and did not set limits on the duration of the military operation. Congressional advocates of strong action to help the Syrian opposition, in contrast, have complained that the attack that Obama appears to be planning seemed to be too limited to have enough of an impact. As the White House consults with Congress, Jackass is planning a new round of diplomacy. He is planning to meet next weekend with EU diplomats in Vilnius and with Arab League diplomats in Rome. After Obama’s change in direction, the reaction in Britain and France has largely been one of surprise and confusion. The French government, which had said on Friday that it would support a military strike, said it would wait for the US Congress to vote before taking any military action. Pres Hollande still intends to proceed with a military intervention of some kind in Syria, French officials said Sunday, but France will await the decision of Congress before taking action. Interior Minister Manuel Valls said on French radio:

We cannot leave this crime against humanity unpunished, but given logistical questions of intervention capacity, France must await the decision of the US. France cannot go forward alone. There must be a coalition.

A major question for military experts is what effect the delay in acting might have if force was eventually used by the US. Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the Army and a retired four-star general, said in an interview that time would work to the advantage of Assad, as the Syrian forces would have more opportunities to move artillery, missiles and other equipment into civilian areas that they knew would not be struck. Even Syrian command centers that could not be moved, he said, would be emptied of sensitive equipment and personnel. But Obama said that he had been assured by Dempsey that a delay would not affect the US military’s ability to carry out a strike.

Yesterday evening the article received a complete rewrite. You can look at the history of the rewrites here. There are various interesting changes, but what is most amazingly wonderful is that the following paragraph appeared in the first version of the article, and has now been edited out:

Administration officials said the influential pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC was already at work pressing for military action against Assad, fearing that if Syria escapes US retribution for its use of chemical weapons, Iran might be emboldened in the future to attack Israel. House majority leader Eric Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, has long worked to challenge Democrats’ traditional base among Jews. One administration official called AIPAC “the 800 lb gorilla in the room,” and said its allies in Congress had to be saying, “If the White House is not capable of enforcing this red line” against the catastrophic use of chemical weapons, we’re in trouble.”

This is what the article looks like now:

President Gains McCain’s Backing on Syria Attack
Jackie Calmes, Michael Jordan, Eric Schmitt, NYT, Sep 2 2013

WASHINGTON — The White House’s aggressive push for Congressional approval of an attack on Syria appeared to have won the tentative support of one of Obama’s most hawkish critics, Walnuts McCain, who said Monday that he would back a limited strike if the president did more to arm the Syrian rebels and the attack was punishing enough to weaken the Syrian military. In an hour-long meeting at the White House, said Walnuts, Obama gave general support to doing more for the Syrian rebels, although no specifics were agreed upon. Officials said that in the same conversation, which included Lindsey Graham (of course, the two amigos are inseparable – RB), Obama indicated that a covert effort by the US to arm and train Syrian rebels was beginning to yield results: the first 50-man cell of fighters, who have been trained by the CIA, was beginning to sneak into Syria. There appeared to be broad agreement with the president, Walnuts and Graham said, that any attack on Syria should be to “degrade” the Syrian government’s delivery systems. Such a strike could include aircraft, artillery and the kind of rockets that the Obama administration says were used to carry out the Aug 21 sarin attack in the Damascus suburbs. The senators said they planned to meet with Susan Rice to discuss the strategy in greater depth. Graham said in an interview:

It is all in the details, but I left the meeting feeling better than I felt before about what happens the day after and that the purpose of the attack is going to be a little more robust than I thought.

But Walnuts said in an interview:

The president did not say specifically what weapons might be provided to the opposition or discuss in detail what Syrian targets might be attacked. There was no concrete agreement, ‘OK, we got a deal.’Like a lot of things, the devil is in the details.

In remarks to reporters outside the West Wing, he called the meeting “encouraging,” urged Congress critturs to support Obama in his plan for military action in Syria and said a no vote in Congress would be “catastrophic” for the US and its credibility in the world. Walnuts said he believed after his conversation with the president that any strikes would be “very serious” and not “cosmetic.” Although the words from Walnuts and Graham were a positive development for Obama and a critical part of the administration’s lobbying blitz on Syria on Monday, the White House still faces a tough fight in Congress. Many of the critturs entirely oppose a strike, and others favor a resolution that would provide for more limited military action than what is in a draft resolution that the White House has sent to Capitol Hill. The conflict of opinion underscores Obama’s challenge in winning votes in the House and Senate next week and avoiding personal defeat. A Labor Day conference call with five of Obama’s highest-ranking security advisers drew 127 House Democrats, nearly two-thirds their total number, after 83 critturs of both parties attended a classified briefing on Sunday. Pertinent committees are returning to Washington early from a Congressional recess for hearings this week, starting Tuesday with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will hear from Jackass Kerry, Sec Def Hagel and JCoS Dempsey. Representative Adam Schiff said in an interview after the Monday conference call:

The debate is shifting away from ‘Did he use chemical weapons?’ to ‘What should be done about it?’

The push in Washington came as reaction continued around the world to the president’s abrupt decision over the weekend to change course and postpone a military strike to seek authorization from Congress first. In France, the only nation to offer vigorous support for a US attack, there were rising calls for a parliamentary vote like the one last week in Britain, where Parliament critturs jolted the White House with a rejection of a British military attack. But the French government, in an effort to bolster its case, released a declassified summary of French intelligence that it said ties the Syrian government to the use of chemical weapons on Aug 21. In Russia, Foreign Minister Lavrov dismissed as unconvincing the evidence presented by Jackass of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government.. Lavrov said in a speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations:

We were shown certain pieces of evidence that did not contain anything concrete, neither geographical locations, nor names, nor evidence that samples had been taken by professionals.

In Israel, Pres Peres offered strong support for Obama’s decision to seek the backing of Congress, saying he had faith in the president’s “moral and operational” position. Peres said in an interview on Army Radio:

I recommend patience. I am confident that the US will respond appropriately to Syria.

In Washington, the White House’s “flood the zone” effort, as one official called it, will continue. Classified briefings will be held for all the critturs on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. On Tuesday, Obama has invited the leaders of the defense, foreign affairs and intelligence committees of both houses and both parties to the White House. But that night, he will depart on a long-planned foreign trip, first to Sweden and then to Russia for the annual G-20 summit meeting, which is sure to be dominated by talk of Syria, and will bring Obama face to face with Assad’s chief ally and arms supplier, Pres Putin. House Democrats on the conference call with administration officials, which lasted 70 minutes, said that Jackass, who has been the most aggressive and public prosecutor for military action, took the lead. Democrats said he had portrayed not only the horrors of chemical weapons inflicted on Syrian civilians in the Aug 21 attacks outside Damascus, but also the potential threat, if left unanswered, that such weapons posed to regional allies like Israel, Jordan and Turkey. Jackass argued that inaction could embolden Iran or nonstate terrorists to strike those allies, and further encourage Iran and North Korea to press ahead with their nuclear programs. Representative Gerald Connolly said:

One of the important propositions that Kerry put to members was, are you willing to live with the consequences of doing nothing?

Jackass addressed the critturs’ concern that the US should have international support, saying at one point:

The US will not go it alone. Offers of military assets have come from France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE, and more are expected.

In the week since the Obama administration began moving toward a military strike on the Assad government, Jackass said, the Syrian military has had about 100 defections, including 80 officers. Dempsey reviewed the range of possible targets and how the Pentagon is planning strikes that would minimize risk to civilians. Despite reports that Syrian commanders were moving troops and equipment into civilian neighborhoods, Dempsey told the critturs, as he had told Obama, that delaying military action would not weaken the effectiveness of any military attack. He suggested that military officials would adjust their targets to address changes on the ground. Dempsey acknowledged that the US could not prevent the Syrian government from using chemical weapons again, but said the military had additional options should a first missile strike not deter them, including in defense of critical allies, presumably Israel, Jordan and Turkey. That possibility, however, describes just the escalating conflict some opponents fear. Representative Elijah Cummings said:

My constituents are skeptical that a limited effort will not mushroom into a full-blown boots on the ground.

Walnuts, who has been arguing for two years that the US should support a moderate Syrian opposition, said he strongly urged the president on Monday to provide anti-tank and antiaircraft systems to the opposition and to attack the Syrian Air Force. Obama indicated that “he favorably viewed the degrading of Assad’s capabilities as well as upgrading the FSA,” Walnuts said in an interview. Administration officials have told Congress that the CIA’s program to arm the rebels would be deliberately limited at first to allow a trial run for US officials to monitor it before ramping up to a larger, more aggressive campaign. US officials have been wary that arms provided to the rebels could end up in the hands of AQ-linked Islamic extremists.

Some people at MondoWeiss have got into an amusing discussion with the editor responsible, or his underling. See here – RB

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