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Rep. Alan Grayson on Syria: Congress Should Reject “Warmongering” and Focus on Problems at Home

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President Obama’s effort to win legislative backing for military strikes against Syria passed its first hurdle on Wednesday when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10 to 7 in favor of bombing Syria. We’re joined by Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson, a leading opponent of the resolution in the House. Grayson has set up a website, DontAttackSyria.com, which is gathering signatures for a petition calling on Congress to deny permission to attack Syria. “I am very disturbed by this general idea that every time we see something bad in the world, we should bomb it,” Grayson says. “The president has criticized that mindset, and now he has adopted it. It’s simply not our responsibility to act alone and punish this.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Obama’s effort to win legislative backing for military strikes against Syria passed its first hurdle on Wednesday when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10 to seven in favor of bombing Syria. The Senate resolution sets a 60-day limit on any engagement in Syria, with a possible 30-day extension to deter that government’s use and degrade its capacity to use chemical weapons. Under the bill, it would become U.S. policy to, quote, “change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria.” Democrat Tom Udall was one of seven senators who voted against the resolution.

SEN. TOM UDALL: I’m voting no because this policy moves the United States towards greater involvement in the Syrian civil war and an increasing regional conflict. This is a very complicated sectarian civil war. Some of the rebels share our values and want an open society. Many others are allied with al-Qaeda and a greater threat to the United States than President Assad ever was. U.S. military involvement, no matter the limits at this point, will likely only pull us towards greater involvement, and with no clear endgame.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Democratic Senator Tom Udall of [New Mexico]. The other votes against the military resolution came from Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut and five Republicans: James Risch of Idaho, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and John Barrasso of Wyoming, Rand Paul also of Kentucky. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts voted present.

Meanwhile, antiwar activists with the group CodePink staged a protest during the House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing Wednesday. Members of the group waved red-stained hands behind Secretary of State John Kerry’s head as he testified. The protest went on for hours and was televised around the world.

During a news conference, President Obama urged the international community to respond to the chemical attack in Syria.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line, and America and Congress’s credibility is on the line, because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Obama arrived in Russia today for the G-20 summit. The United Nations announced today Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy in Syria, is on his way to Saint Petersburg to try to revive flagging efforts to convene an international peace conference in Geneva.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal has revealed new details about the Pentagon’s plan to attack Syria. In addition to using Navy destroyers armed with missiles in the eastern Mediterranean, the Pentagon is now planning to use Air Force bombers.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with Democratic Congressmember Alan Grayson of Florida, member of the House Foreign [Affairs] Committee. In a moment he’ll join us from Capitol Hill, but first this is Congressman Grayson questioning Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at Wednesday’s hearing about—well, regarding the Syrian chemical attack.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Secretary Hagel, there’s been a report in the media that the administration has mischaracterized post-attack Syrian military communications and that these communications actually express surprise about the attack. This is a very serious charge. Can you please release the original transcripts so that the American people can make their own judgment about that important issue?

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: What transcripts are you referring to?

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: The transcripts that were reported that took place after the attack in which the government has suggested that they confirmed the existence of an attack, but actually it’s been reported that Syrian commanders expressed surprise about the attack having taken place, not confirmed it.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Well, that’s probably classified. Congressman, I’d have to go back and review exactly what—what you’re referring to.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, you will agree that it’s important that the administration not mislead the public in any way about these reports, won’t you?

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Well, of course. But I’m not aware of the administration misleading the American public on this issue or any other issue.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Will you agree that the only way to put that matter to rest is to release the original reports in some redacted form?

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I’m not going to agree to anything 'til I see it and ’til I understand better what it is. But most likely it's classified.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: I understand that.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is—this is Congressman Alan Grayson questioning Secretary of State John Kerry.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Have members of the Syrian opposition called for such an attack? And if so, whom?

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Not specifically that I know of. Have they? They supported, apparently, but we—I—they have not advocated to me. I’ve had conversations with the president of the opposition, and there was no pleading or urging to do this.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: In fact, haven’t members of the Syrian opposition said they don’t want an attack? Isn’t that true?

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: No, I have not heard that.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: You haven’t seen the public reports to that effect?


AMY GOODMAN: That’s Representative Alan Grayson, Democrat of Florida’s 9th Congressional District, who opposes a U.S. strike on Syria and has set up a website, dontattacksyria.com, where he’s gathering signatures for a petition calling on Congress to deny permission to attack Syria. Congressman Grayson joins us now from the Cannon Rotunda in Washington, D.C.

Congressman Grayson, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has voted 10 to seven for a strike. You’re on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Talk about what’s going to happen there after yesterday’s hearing.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, I think that the forces of warmongering and the forces of the military-industrial complex are headed for an historic defeat in the House. According to the New York — The Washington Post whip count as of this morning, there are 19 members of Congress in favor of this resolution and 174 against. And the reasons are simple: It’s not our responsibility, it’s not going to do any good, it’s expensive, and it’s dangerous. And those arguments are winning the day among House members, both Democrat and Republican. The margin among Democrats right now in the House is four-to-one against. The margin among Republicans is over 10-to-one against.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Congressman Grayson, the administration people on the news shows last night, their vote counting says that they are confident that this will pass, especially given the fact that key Republican leaders in the House have endorsed the president’s proposal. Your sense of why they are so off on their count?

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: I think that they’re living in a dream world, based upon what you just said. These are independent sources, The Washington Post, The Hill magazine, Firedoglake. Everyone recognizes that the administration is in an extremely deep hole. And, you know, if you want to talk about McCain’s playing poker, I think the administration has now gone from trying to draw the inside straight to bluffing. If they’re saying that they’re going to win this vote, they’re bluffing.

AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday President Obama was questioned in Stockholm, Sweden—the Nobel Peace Prize winner.

ERIKA BJERSTROM: Mr. President, you’ve given very eloquent talks about the moral force of nonviolence. I was wondering, could you describe the dilemma to be a Nobel Peace Prize winner and getting ready to attack Syria?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I would refer you to the speech that I gave when I received the Nobel Prize. And I think I started the speech by saying that compared to previous recipients, I was certainly unworthy. But what I also described was the challenge that all of us face when we believe in peace, but we confront a world that is full of violence and occasional evil. And the question then becomes: What are our responsibilities?

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Alan Grayson, can you respond to President Obama’s question?

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, let’s talk about what our responsibilities are not. Our responsibilities are not to ignore the United Nations. Our responsibilities are not to ignore NATO or the Arab League. Our responsibility is not to ignore the international court of The Hague. Our responsibility is not to make vague remarks about red lines and to follow them up with equally vague remarks about violating international norms, which is a cover for saying that they have—that the Syrians have not violated international laws.

I’m very disturbed by this general idea, this notion, that every time we see something bad in the world, we should bomb it. And, in fact, the president himself has criticized that mindset, and now he’s adopted it. It’s simply not our responsibility to act alone and punish this. I’ll give you an example. There is substantial evidence right now, which the Russians have chosen to actually present to the United Nations, unlike the United States at this point, of the rebels using poison gas. Are we going to bomb both sides?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Congressman, in the hearing yesterday, you pressed this issue of whether the administration was misrepresenting the evidence it had. Could you elaborate further on that? And—because that’s obviously a very important charge, if it’s true.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, The Daily Caller reported in great detail that the report that the administration relied upon, in which the administration said that the Assad government must have been involved in this attack and ordered this attack because afterward one of the Assad generals commented on it, well, according to The Daily Caller, the comment was “We didn’t do this,” or words to that effect. And the administration has—if that’s the case, if that was the comment, the administration has completely mischaracterized it.

And, in fact, as far as I can tell, not a single member of Congress has actually seen the underlying document. What’s been provided to us so far is a four-page unclassified document and, if we bother to go down to the bowels of the congressional facility here, a 12-page classified document. But that classified document cites 300 underlying intelligence reports, none of which have been released to any member of Congress, despite the fact that we all have classified clearance. And I indicated that if there is some possibility that the administration is misleading the public regarding any of those 300 documents, then that has to be dispelled. We can’t go to war by mistake again.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion with Florida Congressmember Alan Grayson. He sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee that will also be voting. Then the House and the Senate, overall, will vote whether to strike Syria. President Obama is currently at the G-20 summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with Congressmember Grayson and then host a debate between two Syrian opposition members about what the U.S. should do. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. And our guest is Congressmember Alan Grayson from Florida. He serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and has a website, dontattacksyria.com.

Congressmember Grayson, I wanted to ask you about the role of AIPAC. There’s been this whole controversy now about a New York Times article. The Times is facing questioning this week after a passage on the influence of AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, on the Syria discussion seemed to disappear from its reports. In an article that appeared in Monday’s newspaper, the Times quoted an unnamed Obama administration official calling AIPAC “the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” because, quote, “its allies in Congress have to be saying, 'If the White House is not capable of enforcing this red line' — against catastrophic use of chemical weapons–’we’re in trouble.’” That passage appeared to be missing from later editions of the story.

Well, The New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, addressed the concern, saying it had a mundane explanation. She wrote, quote, “On a moving story about President Obama and Syria, some information that appeared in a Sunday-to-Monday story was carried over to a new, Monday-to-Tuesday front page story. That new story was, appropriately, assigned a new URL, assuring [that] it would be archived separately. Once new information came along, a great deal of old information, including the Aipac quote, was replaced.”

But that issue of AIPAC’s role in lobbying congressmembers now and senators around a strike on Syria, can you talk about its presence in the House?

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, AIPAC has issued a statement saying that they’re in favor of an attack. And many other organizations have done the same, and many other organizations, even more organizations, have done a statement saying that they’re against it. But at this point it’s not relevant, because the public is engaged, the public is paying attention, the public is against this, and the public is adamantly against this. All these organizations sort of fall to the wayside when the public weighs in. There are now both Democratic and Republican members of Congress who have reported that their emails and letters and phone calls to their office are running more than a hundred to one against this. People are against it. They’re adamantly against it.

At our website that you mentioned, dontattacksyria.com, in almost no time we’ve attracted 35 signatures on our petition to the Congress and to the president, and we’re going to take those signatures and deliver them to the individual members of Congress, showing in some cases hundreds, if not thousands, of their own constituents are against this attack. So, any organization, like AIPAC or otherwise, cannot operate effectively in the environment that we’re in, where the public is speaking and speaking very loudly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Congressman Grayson, could you talk about the impact of this crisis now and this—the administration’s push for this vote—and, obviously, this is going to play out now over several weeks—on the existing agenda of the Congress—I mean, the issues of immigration reform, the issues of the budget, of the approval of a new Federal Reserve chairman? All of these things now, it seems to me, are going to be delayed or possibly even, in cases of immigration reform, may die as result of this new debate now over what to do in Syria.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: It’s far worse than that. It’s far worse than what you’re saying. We are three weeks away from the government shutting down. We are five weeks away from the government running out of money. And we’ve already spent two weeks engaged in a subject where almost everyone feels it’s simply not our responsibility. I said on MSNBC recently that the entire U.S. government, both Democratic and Republican, seems to be suffering from a very bad case of attention deficit disorder. We’re not showing any ability to focus on the things that actually matter in the lives of our constituents. And it’s not getting better; it’s getting worse.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, something that’s interesting that we’re seeing happening is a kind of realignment of Republicans and Democrats. You have nothing of the kind of quagmire that has been referred to. For example, in Florida, your fellow congressmember, Ted Yoho, Republican, has announced, like you, his opposition to military intervention in Syria. Yesterday he asked Secretary of State Kerry why the U.S. should intervene. This is Yoho, followed by Kerry.

REP. TED YOHO: Why is it always America out front?

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: When you asked the question, you know, “Why does the United States have to be out there?” well, because what our forebears and—you know, what those—what those—you ever been to the cemetery in France at—you know, above those beaches? Why did those guys have to go do that? Because we were standing up with people for a set of values and fighting for freedom. And no country has liberated as much land or fought as many battles as the United States of America and turned around and given it back to the people who live there and who can own it and run it. We are the indispensable nation. This is because of who we are and what we’ve achieved, and we should be proud of that.

And we have a great tradition to try to live up to in terms of trying to help people to see a peaceful road, not a road of jihadism. A lot of people out in the Middle East count on us—moderate Arab world, not religious extremists. They count on us to help them be able to transition. That’s part of what the Arab Spring is about. And it’s not going to end quickly. It’s not going to be over just like that. Our own struggle for freedom took a long time. So I think we have to have a longer view here. And I think we have to think about the ways in which we can protect ourselves. And I guarantee you, if we don’t stand up against chemical weapons in this instance, we are not serving our national security interests.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Alan Grayson, if you could respond to the two points? One is your joining with other Republicans in a way you haven’t before. And, two, this issue of, well, the red line. President Obama yesterday at the news conference said he didn’t draw the red line, the international community did.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, first of all, what you have is a coalition of people who are listening to popular opinion, and an overwhelmingly powerful coalition listening to overwhelmingly powerful public opinion. The public simply doesn’t want this. We have 20 million people in this country who are looking for full-time work. We have almost 50 million people in this country who rely upon the government to feed them. We have almost 40 million people in this country who can’t see a doctor when they’re sick. That’s what actually matters in the lives of Americans, not these high-flown ideals that have nothing to do with the safety of Americans. Let’s remember that we changed the name of the War Department to the Defense Department generations ago. And we did that because its assignment is to defend Americans and defend our allies, not be a police officer for the world, much less a judge, jury and executioner for the world. That’s simply not what America wants. It’s not even constitutional.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Congressman, I want to play rare public remarks by David Shedd, the deputy director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, the DIA. He spoke in July at the Aspen Institute about Syria and the regional implications of violence there.

DAVID SHEDD: I think that Syria poses for us one of the biggest challenges in the Middle East, and in particular in the Levant, in that, as some have termed it, if the Arab Awakening and the Arab Spring was largely, outside of Syria, about implosions, Syria is explosive. I think we currently have the makings of a very critical war between the Sunni and Shia. I think the challenges that we face in terms of unfathomable violence is yet to—yet to come. I am very concerned about Jordan, I’m very concerned about Iraq, in the fallout of any outcome, actually, in terms of Syria. I am concerned about Jordan. And so, as I look across those countries, I think if Bashar Assad were to succeed, he will be a more ruthless leader who will live with a legacy of tens of thousands of his civilians killed under—under him. If he loses and, let’s pretend, goes to an enclave inside there, I think there will be ongoing civil war for years to come. And I would be most concerned about Lebanon falling next.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was David Shedd, the deputy director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in July. Congressman Grayson, your response?

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, there’s been enormous amount of pearl clutching by these so-called experts about what might or might not happen in Syria. We’ve had a civil war now for several years there, which has managed to conduct itself without our intervention up to this point, and we’re likely to have it for some time in the future.

I will point out to you that there’s more people who died last year in the Mexican drug war than died in Syria. But leaving that aside, there are conflicts like this all over the world. When I speak to my constituents in Orlando, I don’t think they care, and I understand why they don’t care: It has nothing to do with their lives. We have to concentrate on solving our problems. We have to concentrate on doing the things that are needed to meet our own human needs.

We cannot dictate, much less even influence, what goes on in Syria. It started as a civil war. It’s evolving into a proxy war between Shiite Muslim fundamentalists and Sunni Muslim fundamentalists, both of whom historically are our enemies. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think that Palin actually has this right: Let Allah sort it out.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Secretary of State Kerry yesterday—this was two days ago, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry admitted there are some scenarios—you know, he was very busy with a mantra of “no boots on the ground,” but when pushed, he reflected that some scenarios might exist when the president might decide to send troops into Syria.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: In the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else, and it was clearly in the interests of our allies and all of us—the British, the French and others—to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.

AMY GOODMAN: This is extremely revealing, Congressmember Alan Grayson. And the defense intelligence official, Shedd, at the Aspen Security Forum also talked about this possibility of the bigger effects of what could happen in Syria. Here you have Kerry talking about what if it implodes and the effects on other countries.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Listen, it’s clear that if the Syrian government does anything other than simply taking a pounding and ignoring it and brushing it off, and it retaliates in virtually any way, then there will be a war between Syria and the United States, and it will involve boots on the ground. If Syria, for instance, responds to our missile attack with a missile attack against our ships in the Mediterranean and sinks one of them, there will be war. If they respond to our missile attack with a missile attack against the Beirut embassy, the U.S. embassy in Beirut, which is, by the way, 15 miles from the Syrian border, a two-minute flight in a MiG bomb—a MiG bomber, there will be war. You can’t start something like this and ever foresee what the consequences will be, but history tells us that when you start a war, you’re going to end up with war. The only thing you can really be sure of in a situation like this, when you’re starting a war, is that you can’t be sure of anything.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Congressman, there is, as we have noted on this show, the fact, that doesn’t get much attention, that Syria and Iran have a mutual defense pact with each other and that any attack on Syria could possibly draw some response from Iran, as well.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: From Iran, from Hezbollah. You know, Hezbollah forces are literally down the block from the U.S. embassy in Beirut. And we’re not talking about a hypothetical. That embassy actually was attacked, and it was taken over once before. So, you know, I think the administration is not thinking these things through. This is a very dangerous undertaking. There’s no telling where it might end up, except for the fact that history tells us that when you start things like this, it’s very difficult to end them. Remember how World War I got started: by accident.

AMY GOODMAN: The defense secretary, Hagel, was asked about the cost of this. He said something like tens of millions of dollars. Of course, we know that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost far more than originally stated. We’re talking about trillions upon trillions of dollars. How would you like to see that money spent?

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, first, with regard to your question and the framing of it, there are other public estimates right now of the cost of this, including estimates from the general who testified next to Senator Kerry yesterday that run as high as half-a-billion dollars a week. That’s half-a-billion dollars a week, depending upon what specific option is chosen to try to respond to the chemical weapon attacks. So we’re talking about far larger sums of money. The best guess at this point is that the attack we’re talking about here, as it’s been described in general terms, will cost a billion dollars.

That’s a billion dollars that could be spent, at least in part, on humanitarian aid to help the almost two million refugees who are now in Jordan and Turkey. It’s also a billion dollars that could be used for domestic needs. We’re living in a time where we’ve actually cut food stamps. We’ve cut home heating oil support for people in the winter. We’ve cut the budget for the FAA to keep planes from falling out of the sky. And we’ve cut all sorts of security budgets, justice budgets and so on. And it seems to me that this is the wrong time to be spending more on our so-called defense, when this is a matter that doesn’t even involve our so-called defense. I will tell you that in the hearing yesterday I specifically asked, “Will you be coming back to the Congress for more money after this attack comes, more money for the Defense Department in the budget?” And the answer was maybe.

AMY GOODMAN: What happens if the House Foreign Affairs Committee votes this down? The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has voted for it. It was close; it was 10 to seven, Democrats and Republicans on both sides. But what happens then?

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, I predict—this is not clear at this point, because no commitment has been made, but I think what they’ll do is simply take the Senate resolution and have it voted on the floor of the House. They might try to route it through my committee; they might not. But they’re—given the time frame that’s involved and the fact that the Senate isn’t going to act until toward the end of next week, the fact that the president said he wants an immediate answer, procedurally, without going through a lengthy mark-up in our committee, you couldn’t do that routing it through our committee. You would have to put it on the floor of the House. As I indicated earlier, the vote at this point is overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly against this, almost 10 to one against this, according to the members who have already committed. So, I’m not even sure they’d go to that length, unless they want to simply put it out there to be defeated.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us, Congressmember Alan Grayson, Democrat of Florida’s 9th Congressional District, opposes the U.S. strike on Syria and has set up a website, dontattacksyria.com, where he’s gathering signatures for a petition calling on Congress to deny permission to attack Syria. When we come back, a debate among two members of the Syrian opposition on whether the U.S. should strike their country. Stay with us.

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