WASHINGTON - Two Republican senators who are among President Barack Obama's sharpest foreign policy critics on Saturday blasted a Syrian chemical weapons agreement as "an act of provocative weakness" by America that will embolden enemies such as Iran as it continues its push for a nuclear weapon.
The House Democratic leader said the deal, under which Syria will be expected to put its stockpile of chemical weapons under international control before they ultimately are destroyed, represented "significant progress" in efforts by the U.S. to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction.
"What concerns us most is that our friends and enemies will take the same lessons from this agreement: They see it as an act of provocative weakness on America's part," Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a joint statement. "We cannot imagine a worse signal to send to Iran as it continues its push for a nuclear weapon."
The Obama administration and many lawmakers -- including McCain and Graham -- blame Syria for the deaths of more than 1,400 people last month in a chemical weapons attack near the capital of Damascus. But the two sides parted company on whether the U.S. should take military action in response, as Obama had said he was prepared to do before he tossed the issue to Congress for a vote.
Many lawmakers opposed the military option, while McCain and Graham were among those supporting it.
But what the two senators do not support is the agreement their former colleague, Secretary of State John Kerry, announced Saturday in Geneva after days of tense talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The deal calls for securing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons stockpile and imposing penalties if the government of President Bashar Assad fails to comply with its terms. The agreement was the result of a surprise proposal by Syria's staunch ally, Russia.
McCain and Graham said a U.N. Security Council resolution, one of the next steps in the process, that doesn't threaten Assad with the use of force if his government fails to comply will render the agreement meaningless. Senior administration officials said Friday that Obama would be open to a U.N. resolution that omits the threat of military force for failing to abide by the agreement, largely because Russia, a permanent member of the council, would veto any measure that includes a military trigger. Russia has vetoed past attempts by the council to take action against Syria.
The administration officials said Obama retains the authority to launch a strike.
McCain and Graham also argued that Assad will use the time the agreement gives him to delay and deceive the world.
"It requires a willful suspension of disbelief to see this agreement as anything other than the start of a diplomatic blind alley, and the Obama administration is being led into it by Bashar Assad and (Russian President) Vladimir Putin," the senators said.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who supported Obama, credited the president's "steadfast leadership" for "making significant progress in our efforts to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction." She also credited Obama's "clear and credible" threats to use force against Syria for making the agreement possible.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said eliminating Syria's chemical weapons cache is a better outcome than just deterring and degrading Assad's ability to use them, which Obama had said was the goal of the limited military operation he envisioned.
"It is important for everyone, but especially for Syria and Russia, to keep in mind that as the president said, the United States remains prepared to act if Syria does not implement this agreement. Russia and Syria sought two things in any agreement: a promise on our part not to use military force, and an end to international support for the Syrian opposition. This agreement includes neither item," Levin said.
"Just as the credible threat of a strike against Syria's chemical capability made this framework agreement possible, we must maintain that credible threat to ensure that Assad fully complies with the agreement," he said.
Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who sits on both the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, voiced the sentiments of lawmakers in both houses when he said "a diplomatic solution to eliminate (Assad's) chemical weapons capabilities is preferable to a military one." King said he was encouraged by the development and looked forward to the process moving ahead.
McCain and Graham argued anew for more robust assistance from the Obama administration to opposition forces that have been fighting for more than two years to topple Assad. They said the deal doesn't do anything to solve a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people and turned millions of Syrians into refugees.
"Is the message of this agreement that Assad is now our negotiating partner, and that he can go on slaughtering innocent civilians and destabilizing the Middle East using every tool of warfare, so long as he does not use chemical weapons?" they said. "That is morally and strategically indefensible."