CAPITOL HILL: After bitter debate, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 21 to 9 to approve the administration’s request for $500 million in training and weapons for “vetted” Syrian rebel fighters.
Now the annual defense spending bill and supplemental Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding pass to the Senate floor, largely unchanged from what SAC’s defense subcommittee approved on Tuesday. But the intensity of the “nay” votes – and the deep ambivalence of the “yeas”– shows how unhappy Congress is about the plan, and not only in the Senate. It’s a bicameral and bipartisan unhappiness that flared up just yesterday in the House Armed Services Committee.
“Before we vote, I just want to state my incredible ambivalence about this,” said SAC chair Sen. Barbara Mikulski. “I worry about another ‘Charlie Wilson’s War,’” she said, referring to the book and film about arming the Afghan mujihadeen in the 1980s – Islamic militants many of whom later turned against America and its interests.
“I’m going to support [the $500 million], but I do think it needs to be tightened and clarified,” she said. “We’re worried about this, so we want to make sure that we are helpful [in Syria], but there needs to be some sense of a better articulated plan and some better safeguards. ”
In fact, Mikulski and SAC defense chairman Richard Durbin took pains to point out that the bill language already required the administration to give Congress more information on its strategy and goals before spending a cent for the Syrians. “It doesn’t give the money, it creates the opportunity” to give it later when appropriately reliable groups are identified as part of a sound strategy, Mikulski said.
“There are many things going on in Syria we [Congress] have had no voice and no role in; this one we will,” said Durbin.
That was not enough for nine Senators, led by Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor, who offered an amendment to strip out the entire aid package and repurpose the $500 million “to more effective counterterrorism efforts.” (It was Pryor’s amendment that went down on the 21 to 9 vote). “Once the equipment is out there, we can’t take it back,” Pryor said, and Syria is such a “kaleidoscope” of shifting allegiances that “our friends today could be our enemies tomorrow.”
“I am extremely troubled by the fact that the administration has sent up a request for $500 million without having a plan,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican who also sits on the intelligence committee. “I participated in numerous briefings – and I know we cannot get into the details in this open session — but the fact is that the administration cannot enunciate its goals for how this money would be spent and what our ultimate objectives are.”
“If this money had been accompanied by a plan two or even three years ago,” Collins continued, “I think it might have made a difference, but now the opposition is so infiltrated with Islamic extremists that I think it is virtually impossible to do the kind of careful vetting that this bill envisions to determine who is friend and who is foe.”
“The administration’s decision to create this account is probably too little too late,” agreed one of the most strongest supporters of arming the opposition, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican. If we’d supported the moderates back when they were the majority at the start of the civil war, he lamented, when there were only 500 foreign fighters in Syria, we might not have an estimated 26,000 Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fanatics now. But, he said, too little, too late is better than nothing at all.
Such damningly faint praise was the refrain of the aid plan’s supporters. “[It’s the better of two bad choices,” said Sen. Dan Coats. “Maybe it’s a long shot, but maybe it’s…the only shot that we have.”
The strongest endorsement was probably from Sen. Dianne Feinstein: “I find the language to be very adequate,” said the California Democrat, who not only sits on Appropriations but also chairs the intelligence committee. “The intelligence committee did have a hearing on this subject and there was substantial imprecision about what this money would be used for” on the part of the administration, she said, but the requirement to submit a strategy before spending the $500 million adequately addresses that concern.
In the end, the committee voted overwhelmingly – but ambivalently – for the aid package. But the administration is on notice that it had better come up with a more convincing case to Congress.