Ron Johnson Explains Vote Against Syria Military Action

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Ron Johnson Explains Vote Against Syria Military Action

Premiere Date: 
September 6, 2013

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson explains his "no" vote on Syria military action this week.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

But first, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved military action in Syria on Wednesday on a 10-7 vote. The approved resolution prohibits the use of US ground troops. It gives a maximum time line of 90 days. The full senate has to approve the resolution, as does the House, where hearings started midweek. President Obama has said he is still able to use military force even without congressional approval. The senate committee approval follows an alleged chemical attack from the Syrian government that US officials estimate killed more than 1,400 people. The original proposal only sought to prevent future use of chemical weapons by limiting the Syrian regime’s capabilities, but an amendment from Senator John McCain added another goal to the resolution. The new goal reads, quote, "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." Nobody on Wisconsin's congressional delegation has so far declared his or her support for the proposed strike. Senator Ron Johnson sits on the senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he voted against the authorization to strike. He joins us now from Milwaukee to talk about his vote, and, Senator, thanks very much for doing so.

Ron Johnson:

Hello, Frederica, how you doing?

Frederica Freyberg:

Very well. We want to ask, first, why did you vote no on authorizing military force against Syria?

Ron Johnson:

Well, there are a host of reasons. First of all, I have so many questions that remain unanswered. You know, we actually were forced to vote 25 hours after, really, debate commenced, the hearings on Syria, you know, first started. And that's simply not enough time to gather the information, and really deliberate and contemplate, really, probably the most serious vote that any member of congress is ever asked to take a vote on, is whether or not we're going to initiate military action, put the finest among us at risk. So it was an inappropriately rushed process and there remained far too many unanswered questions.

Frederica Freyberg:

I want to get to the questions part, but I do want to confirm that you were one of the people that was in the closed, kind of, intelligence briefings, and still that wasn't enough?

Ron Johnson:

No. And, again, the public hearing ran three, 3.5 hours. The closed briefing was probably about two hours' worth. But the problem here, Frederica, is it's extremely difficult to get the information. Even the administration, I'm not convinced, has the type of information they need to really carry out this military strike. I don't believe they are seriously thinking about what the repercussions are. You know, my problem is, I'm afraid that an ineffective strike-- And let's face it, we've lost the element of surprise here. Because we've signaled our intentions, Bashar Assad has been able to, basically, disperse those assets. So I think an ineffective strike is actually worse than no strike at all, because it allows Assad to emerge from his hiding and basically say, well, I survived, claim victory and move on with impunity. So I think there are actually better strategies. I think we really ought to be working hard to develop that coalition of willing to shame anybody, that includes Russia, might include China, anybody that would support these crimes against humanity. I think that would be a better course of action without putting at risk our standing in the world. And that's part of the problem here, is if we conduct military exercise, the focus of the world rather than being on the war crime of Bashar Assad will shift and give our foes ammunition to criticize our military, let’s face it, almost unilateral, military action. I don't think that's just a very wise course of action.

Frederica Freyberg:

I know that during that open hearing your questions to the Secretary of State and others, you suggested that targeted strikes would not be robust enough. So would you like to see bigger action than, kind of, targeted strikes? And would that allow you to vote yes?  

Ron Johnson:

Well, during the hearing I was just asking questions. President Obama, very early in the conflict said, Assad must go. Secretary Kerry basically confirmed that that is the policy of the United States. So I was just asking the question, if the policy is to replace Assad, if we're going to take military action, why wouldn't we target or tailor that military action toward achieving that goal? It makes no sense to me to just do a shot across the bow that leaves Assad in place and, again, gives him the talking point of saying, I survived, and basically laugh at America. So I'm highly concerned about the credibility of this nation. I'm highly concerned, by the way, of the real national security interest at stake here. It's the fact that there are 2 million pounds of chemical weapons and their precursors that are now in the hands of the Assad regime. But let’s face it, we have elements of al-Qaeda infiltrating the rebels. We have Hezbollah working with the Assad regime. I'm highly concerned about those chemical weapons falling in the hands of our enemies, people dedicated to killing Americans. To me, that is the national security interest here at stake. The administration is barely even mentioning that point.

Frederica Freyberg:

So are these some of the kinds of things that you need to have resolved for yourself before going forward and making any kind of definitive decision on this?  

Ron Johnson:

I need to understand, what is the strategy? What is the goal? I mean, really what is the goal? What does success look like? And, by the way, at this moment, because President Obama was not decisive. He didn't act when he still had the element of surprise. He's come before congress, which I think at this point is appropriate, but even more important, he has to convince the American public. If you're going to commit to military action, you must be committed to success. You have to be able to have a long-term commitment. And if you don't have the backing of the American people, you cannot maintain the commitment that you need to the level of success you need to achieve. So at this point in time it's the job of the president and members of his administration to convince the American people to be in support of this.  And he is a long way from gaining that support.

Frederica Freyberg:

You know, interestingly, it seems to me that earlier on you were kind of suggesting that the president should have been more decisive, which says to me, should have acted more quickly. But now you need to kind of slow the process down and get support from the public, as well as from people like yourself.  

Ron Johnson:

If you're going to have an effective military strike, you had to be decisive, you had to take action when you still had some element of surprise so it could be effective, so it actually could achieve the goals. At this point, because this president hasn't acted decisively, because now weeks have gone by. And basically those assets are dispersed in population areas, now you go, what's the point of military action? Again, I’ll come back to the point. What we don't want to do is defect world attention, world outrage, away from the heinous crimes against humanity of the Assad regime and toward unilateral military action. Again, it's all about how these events unfold. We’re talking about how you make decisions at a particular point in time based on what's already happened.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, President Obama, as we mentioned in our introduction, has said that he can still act to strike Syria even without congressional authorization. What's your response to that? 

Ron Johnson:

I believe he does have that authority. I believe it would be unwise at this point in time. Again, it is not wise for an American president to take America into war without the backing of the American public. Now, if you do it before you’ve even announced it to the American people. Generally, Americans rally behind their president. When they believe the president has taken actions in the best interest of America, they will rally behind him. But because he didn't take that decisive action, now he's got to explain it and get the American people on his side. 

Frederica Freyberg:

Americans, I think it’s very fair to say, are war-weary at this point. What concerns do you have about potential repercussions of a US strike against Syria?

Ron Johnson:

Well, again, if we give our foes the ammunition to criticize our unilateral military action when we should focusing on the chemical weapons used against the Assad regime. I think that's a real problem. As well as, I don't know how Russia is going to respond. I mean, they have military personnel there. We know some of these assets have been moved into Russian-- in some of their military bases there. What is going to be the Assad regime's reaction? Could they potentially give those chemical weapons to Hezbollah to be used against Israel? Could– Who knows? Who knows exactly what the repercussions are going to be of this? And Frederica, during the hearings when I asked the Secretary of Defense, what is the troop strength of the rebels? What is the composition? He couldn't answer the question. I asked the chairman of the joint chiefs, General Dempsey, do you know the troop strength? He couldn't answer the question. To me, that does not give me the level of confidence that this administration has planned this thing through, and that they have the information they need to actually initiate military action.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, here's a political question. It appears that some Tea Party senators oppose this Syrian strike, as do you so far. Can you explain what might be the common thread, or the politics, of Tea Party opposition to such action?  

Ron Johnson:

No. I mean, every member is going to have to speak for himself. I really do believe in the Foreign Relations Committee. I think that vote was very nonpartisan. I really do believe that every member in a moment of such gravity, of such importance, really do search your own soul, your own conscience. And I don't believe there's much politics being played here whatsoever. I think what you're seeing, though, because this president has not been making the case for the last two and a half years of why Syria– the events in Syria do pose a national security threat to this nation, American is not convinced. It's incumbent on the president, his administration, to convince Americans. And the fact that that hasn’t happened– Frederica, in my office, 98% of the calls coming in are opposed to military action. Now, I've never had an issue where that is the level of public opposition to something. And let's face it, in the end, I will vote based on what I think is in the best interest of America. But you also have to understand that constituents-- You've been hired by them to represent them, and you cannot ignore that level of lack of support.

Frederica Freyberg:

Senator Ron Johnson, thank you very much for joining us on this.

Ron Johnson:

Thank you.   


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