U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday became the first congressional leader to oppose President Barack Obama's call for military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Hours before Obama told the nation that he would ask Congress to delay voting on his proposal, McConnell, R-Louisville, said he would vote against military action against Assad, who allegedly violated international law by using chemical weapons against his own people.
McConnell, who is up for re-election next year, announced his stance during remarks on the floor of the Senate.
"A vital national security risk is clearly not at play" in Syria, he said. "There are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria, including the fact that this proposal is utterly detached from a wider strategy to end the civil war there."
The campaign of Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes was quick to criticize McConnell's handling of the Syria debate Tuesday even though Grimes has repeatedly avoided saying how she would vote on Obama's proposal if she were in the Senate.
When asked again to explain Grimes' position, senior adviser Jonathan Hurst responded: "It is astonishing that Sen. McConnell has abdicated his leadership responsibility and not led throughout this important debate."
The campaign of Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, who is challenging McConnell in May's Republican primary election, chided McConnell for taking so long to decide how he would vote.
"Congratulations to Sen. McConnell for finally coming off the sidelines and reaching a decision on Syria after Matt Bevin, other congressional leaders and a majority of the public made up their minds against an attack," Bevin campaign spokeswoman Sarah Durand said in an email.
"Once it looked increasingly clear that the strikes will not happen, Sen. McConnell read the tea leaves," Durand said. "Perhaps we should call him Follower McConnell instead of Leader McConnell."
Bevin's campaign released a video last week announcing his opposition to Obama's plan and asking McConnell to announce his position.
In his remarks Tuesday, McConnell said Obama's proposal was based on contradictory goals: "Either we will strike targets that threaten the stability of the regime — something the president says he does not intend to do — or we will execute a strike so narrow as to be a mere demonstration."
McConnell criticized Obama for announcing his Syria proposal in a "ham-handed manner," saying "there is absolutely no reason to signal to the enemy when and how, and for how long, you plan to strike them — none."
No one disputes that the atrocities committed in Syria in recent weeks were unspeakable and should have been condemned, McConnell said.
"But let's be very clear about something. These attacks, monstrous as they are, were not a direct attack against the United States or one of its treaty allies," McConnell said.
He said there was no reason to believe Assad wouldn't continue to kill his people if the president's strikes are limited. He also asked whether other extremists would gain control of the country's chemical weapons.
Concerning Russia's plan to forestall U.S. military action through a proposal to secure and eventually destroy Syrian chemical weapons, McConnell said the proposal was worth exploring.
But he warned that securing and destroying chemical weapons was extremely challenging and required a great deal of attention to detail and safety. He noted Kentucky's decades-long efforts to destroy nerve gas at the Army depot in Richmond.
"What's needed in Syria is what's needed almost everywhere else in the world from America right now: a clear strategy and a president who is determined to carry it out," McConnell said.
Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.