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Rep. Cole Weighs In On Syria Resolution


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Seeking to win support in Congress for air strikes on Syria, President Obama addresses the nation tomorrow and also gives a series of TV interviews today. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is also going to America's airwaves. Asked on CBS if a strike on his country could provoke a retaliation involving chemical weapons, this was his response.

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: That depends. If the rebels or the terrorists in this region, or any other group have it, it could happen. I don't know.

MONTAGNE: Bashar al-Assad speaking this morning. Among those in Congress who will likely vote no against military action, is Republican Tom Cole. Welcome back to the program.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: It's great to be with you.

MONTAGNE: Now, the president plans to address the nation tomorrow night. Can he say anything at this point to change your mind or your constituents' minds?

COLE: Well, I frankly always listen with a great deal of respect to whatever the president has to say - any president, quite frankly - and so I will certainly listen. But I think it's very unlikely that I'll hear an argument that I haven't heard or see evidence that I haven't already had the opportunity to see.

MONTAGNE: Now, we know the public is opposed generally to a strike. You might say the American public has been burned by supporting the Iraq invasion. But the president has pointedly excluded troops and limited this military action to a strike - which, you know, looking back at Kosovo and Bosnia, similar limited strikes have done a lot of good.

Why are you - why wouldn't you consider this as a possible option?

COLE: Well, first of all, I think, again, the nature of the conflict, as was mentioned earlier on the program, is particularly intractable and particularly nasty. It's a war on many levels - civil war, religious war, proxy war between the Iranians and the Saudis. Beyond that, I think that there's no direct security threat to the United States or to any of its allies.

And finally, I think that the action that's being proposed is actually not likely to work. This is not the first chemical attack that we've seen. There have been several. And frankly, in the past the United States hasn't intervened, whether it was in the Iraqi-Iranian war, whether it was in Iraq itself at the time chemical weapons were used, or, frankly, over the last several months when we have every reason to believe that there's been limited use in Syria before.

At the end of the day, I think the American people just simply don't want to do it. There's no international sanction for it. There's very little in the way of international support for military action.

Other countries aren't going to participate with us, so it's like once again the United States on its own is sort of policeman of the world.

MONTAGNE: Let me ask you about that, though. As you've said, and I'll quote you, and another point in time the U.N. hasn't asked us to act, but we heard in another part of this program from U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, that Russia has played a role - a big role in thwarting any meaningful action by the Security Council against Syria.

She called Russia Syria's patron. You know, I mean, are you in a sense letting Russia stop America from acting?

COLE: Not at all. NATO hasn't asked us to act either. The Arab League hasn't asked us to act. There are things that we can do short of military intervention that I think we ought to do. One of them would be to take Assad to the international court and have him declared a war criminal. There's that type of action. But the use of American military power largely is a gesture.

It's not going to change the balance of power on the ground. Indeed, the administration tells us they don't want to do that because they're very worried what would happen if Assad were gone. And it's not as if the rebel forces are paragons of virtue. So it's a difficult war. We have a stalemate now. There's things we can do around the edges.

But again, asking an already overstretched military to do another mission on the fly without a lot of planning, I just think is not appropriate. I think the American people have spoken pretty firmly. Again, they're going to listen respectfully to the president, as they should, but I think at the end of the day they're not going to be convinced.

MONTAGNE: What can you do around the edges against chemical weapons...

COLE: Well, again, as I mentioned earlier...

MONTAGNE: ...gassing people.

COLE: know, we're taking about making him an international pariah. You could do things that make it difficult for people to cooperate with him. But, again, if you end up eliminating him and saying we can be so precise that we can send a message but not tip the balance of power is a pretty risky thing to do.

And, you know, I think the American people simply don't want to be involved in this kind of conflict when they don't see a compelling national interest or threat to the United States.

MONTAGNE: Congressman Cole, how many Republican votes are there for a strike?

COLE: You know, I don't know. We haven't done a whip count on this and I don't think either side is using their whip team. But my sense is very few - and frankly I think that the president is struggling on his side of the aisle as well. I don't think there's going to be an overwhelming Democratic vote in favor of this.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

COLE: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's Republican congressman from Oklahoma, Tom Cole. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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