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Alaska Sen. Murkowski critical of Obama decision on Syria

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Posted: Saturday, August 31, 2013 3:26 pm | Updated: 1:15 pm, Wed Sep 4, 2013.

FAIRBANKS—U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Saturday criticized President Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval before taking military action against Syria over that nation’s reported use of chemical weapons against its citizens.

Murkowski and other senators received an unclassified briefing about the Syria crisis on Saturday from Obama, who the same day announced his decision to pursue Congress’ backing. She and other Republican senators were invited to stay longer to hear from Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and others.

“I felt like I was coming away more confused with the president’s position and where he wants to take the country on this than before the call,” Murkowski said Saturday by phone from Wasilla. “I was really hoping there would be a clear path forward, some real conviction to where he is going, and I didn’t’ hear it.”

The administration had given the impression in recent days that a military strike against the Assad regime was imminent. U.S. warships are in position to launch missiles, and Kerry made the case Friday for an attack.

“Do I think we should have done something? Yes,” Murkowski said, adding that she doesn’t want the U.S. engaged in a war in Syria since the U.S. is still on the ground in Afghanistan and also recovering from the Iraq War. “But I also recognize that we cannot have a nation flout all of the international norms and move forward in the direction that Syria has with using chemical weapons agents on their own people.”

Murkowski said she believes, based on the unclassified material that she has been provided, that Syria used chemical weapons against its own people. But she said she also wants a classified briefing and wants the administration to consult Congress. Even so, she pointed out that Obama has the authority to conduct limited military action without congressional approval.

“We do need to be consulted,” she said. “But if he’s right and... we need to send a clear and unqualified message to Iran, North Korea that you just don’t mess with this, you don’t use chemical weapons on your people, and we just say ‘Don’t do it and we’re going to get serious about it’ but we’ve got to wait until we can get together and talk about it, I don’t think in the eyes of the world it looks good.”

Murkowski noted that Congress isn’t scheduled to return to Washington until Sept. 9. She said Obama should call Congress back into session if he believes the situation is urgent.

“In the meantime he’s telling the world ‘This is unacceptable, we must act, but I’m going to hold off,” she said. “If I’m Assad, I’m listening to this and saying I’ve got carte blanche.”

Murkowski said she believes Obama’s sudden desire to consult Congress is the result of two things: the rebuke suffered Thursday by British Prime Minister David Cameron when Parliament voted against military action, and Obama’s desire to have good approval ratings.

“I think that made the president a little gun-shy on this in terms of doing anything on his own,” she said of the vote in Britain. “If he’s got the approval of Congress, then obviously that makes it easier for him.”

“But in the meantime, in the eyes of the international community, I think we look extraordinarily weak,” she said. “I think we look like we can’t make up our minds what we want to do.”

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, was traveling on the North Slope with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Saturday and was unavailable for comment, spokeswoman Heather Handyside said.

Begich, in a previous statement, said any response against Syria “must be a unified, international approach that is carefully tailored to terminate use of chemical weapons” and that Congress must be consulted.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, was also unavailable, spokesman Mike Anderson said.

Young, in a post on his Facebook page on Wednesday, stated his opposition to broad intervention in Syria’s civil war and said he believes Obama must receive authorization from Congress before ordering the U.S. military into action.

“As events continue to unfold in Syria, I want to make it very clear to Alaskans that we cannot ignore the unthinkable horror of using chemical weapons,” he wrote. “However, at the current time, I do not support U.S. military intervention in Syria’s civil war. After a dozen years, the American people are sick and tired of sacrificing lives in foreign wars.”

Contact managing editor Rod Boyce at 459-7585. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMeditor.

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