Alan Grayson unloads on "warmongering" and "hubris": The Salon interview

Congressman tells Salon about leading the opposition to Syria vote, and the difference between Democrats and GOP

Published September 16, 2013 3:01PM (EDT)

Alan Grayson         (AP/Evan Vucci)
Alan Grayson (AP/Evan Vucci)

Despite only his second term in Congress, Alan Grayson has had a major impact on the most important debate of the year. He put himself into a vocal leadership position in opposition to military action in Syria, and after weeks of organizing, the crisis has apparently dissipated without ever having to take a vote.

The pact between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to secure and dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles takes military strikes off the table for now, as well as reinforcing the ban on chemical warfare and re-establishing the primacy of the United Nations in international crises. Grayson, in a message to supporters last week, exulted, “we have shown that Peace can be more powerful than War.”

In an interview on Friday, Salon talked to Grayson about how the drive for war broke down this time around, the differences between how Democrats and Republicans viewed the situation, and the troubling lack of transparency from the Administration on the intelligence used to justify military force. Following is a transcript of that conversation.

So what’s the latest on Syria? Is the Administration trying to still get an authorization for military force as a backup for the diplomatic process?

Well, warmongering is something that's always attempted. Every hour, every day, every month and every week. But the Administration simply has no way to persuade the House under current circumstances. There’s no way to get a majority out of the House to support armed intervention. The current whip count in the Washington Post is 26 in favor, 251 against. And those are accurate numbers, if anything they understate the case. I’ve spoken to supposedly undecided members who are keeping quiet about their opposition out of respect to the Administration. So they can try, but it’s not going to happen.

So why did this work this time? I mean, recent history shows that America is not exactly shy about approving of military action.

Once every 40 months, yes.

So what was different? Is it just war fatigue generally, or something unique to the Syria situation? Why were you so successful in building a massive coalition against a rush to war?

Some people have different points of view. Republican members by and large think this isn't a valid use of the U.S. military. They believe in the Powell doctrine, that you don’t go to war with no strategy, no overwhelming force, and no way out. Republicans believe the purpose of the military is to defend America, defend our allies and that's it. And this Syria action doesn't fall into any of those categories. That’s particularly true among constitutionalists.

Among Democrats, I think there’s been more of an analysis of pros and cons. They’re looking at the advantages, the disadvantages and the risks. And they’re reaching the same conclusion by a margin of over 3:1. They understand that a U.S. attack will not end the civil war, it will not change the leadership in Syria, it will not prevent a new chemical attack, and it won't reduce the chemical stockpile. An attack could in fact weaken the command and control of those chemical stockpiles from the Syrian military, and create an enormous opportunity for proliferation, putting these weapons in the hands of other people. As Democrats look at this, they see an enormous possibility of outright war.

They realize that the Administration has underestimated the possibility that an attack will lead to counter-attack, against the U.S. fleet, U.S. civilians in Lebanon or elsewhere, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, against Israel, against Turkey, against our forces in the field, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. It’s not exactly a target-poor environment. There’s the possibility of triggering the mutual defense pact between Syria and Iran. There are Russian military advisers all over the place in Syria. Some of them might die in an attack, and that could bring forward a confrontation between the United States and Russia. I see people concerned about our violation of international law. That’s a point Putin made in his editorial, but many members have pointed that out to me. So members of Congress look and this and see an attack as pointless and dangerous.

What’s your assessment of how the Administration has conducted themselves in this case?

I have the benefit of knowing what the U.S. military plans are. Members on both sides are extremely well-informed about this. Most of us have been to multiple briefings, in some cases classified briefings. It’s not that people need more information, you know, we’ve got plenty. And what we’re seeing is an extremely risky and fruitless undertaking. I have the sense that the Administration is suffering from some degree of hubris. They claim to know the future reactions of the Syrians, the Russians, the Iranians, Hezbollah. They claim to be able to micromanage this “unbelievably small” attack. In a way it’s reminiscent of Johnson choosing bombing targets in Vietnam. We all know how that ended up.

There’s another point that we’re not concentrating on things that matter in the lives of our constituents. We have the possibility of a government shutdown, the debt ceiling, why are we talking about this?

And there’s an overwhelming tsunami of constituent opinion against this attack. I know there are some members who are reluctant to concede authority to their constituents. I'm not. The first statement I made about this attack was “My constituents don’t support it.” And when you see 100,000 people coming to our website, 200,0000 to Credo, more to MoveOn, and Republicans have seen grassroots activity on their side. This translates into a one-sided battering, to the extent of people walking up to you in the street telling you how vehemently opposed they are.

In a single week, the President lost 17 points in the opinion polls. And all of this understates and omits the extreme anxiety opponents feel about being dragged into another interminable Mideast war. The people for an attack are mildly for it, those against are adamantly, loudly against an attack. Congressional offices are seeing something they’ve never seen before. I’ve had a member of Congress who’s been here 20 years tell me that he’s never seen something where constituent contacts are running 100:1 against. Democratic and Republican members have put out specific counts, and they are consistently over 100:1. One member said to me he’s received 1,000 emails, and only 3 of them for an attack.

What do you make of the idea put out by the Administration that it was only the credible threat of military force that brought the Syrians and the Russians to the negotiating table?

It’s just not true. Look, if the President wants to take credit, that’s fine with me. I don’t think he has a hidden agenda. He’s genuinely aggrieved by chemical warfare. But the Syrian army has Internet access. They can go to the Washington Post or The Hill or Firedoglake and see whip counts, they can see for themselves that the numbers are what I said. It’s implausible to me personally that their primary motivation is to avoid an authorization for military force when they can see the current count. Many votes fell off the Administration position in the Senate. It was pretty close until (last) Tuesday, then support in the Senate collapsed, that’s why there was no vote Wednesday.

My view is that the Syrians probably have suffered a breakdown in the command and control of their chemical weapons. That’s what German intelligence said. It’s unfortunate that I found out about the German intelligence from newspapers, even though I’m serving on the Foreign Affairs committee, I would expect the Administration to tell me, but that’s another story.

No, let’s talk about that. It occurs to me that your big effort in 2010 was to audit the Fed, to bring transparency to financial matters. Now, with this Syria debate, you wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the lack of transparency in the intelligence. Do you see a parallel there?

Yes, and transparency is a universal value shared in large part by both parties, liberals and conservatives. The situation is profoundly disturbing to many members. We’re two weeks past the point where the Administration called for an attack. And we've been given a grand total of two documents. A four-page unclassified summary giving nothing but talking points for war, some of which has been discredited, including the casualty count. Even the Administration is no longer willing to say 1,429 people were killed by chemical weapons on August 21.

The other intelligence is not close to that. And a 12-page classified summary. I can't tell you what's in it, I couldn't possibly comment, but as you might think, it's much the same, prepared by proponents of war, giving only pro-war talking points. There’s no actual underlying intelligence. The other members haven't seen it. It’s been more than a week since the Administration received several formal requests to show the evidence. I don't understand how a great nation spending over $50 billion a year on intelligence can show lawmakers two documents, and on that basis expect us to approve a war.

I caught a lot of resonance with other members of Congress when I pointed out that the Benghazi situation was treated entirely differently. That was a case of a few unfortunate deaths, versus a third Middle Eastern war. In Bengahzi we got everything!

When I hear these wild claims against Hillary Clinton, I laughed out loud, because the members obviously didn’t go to a secure facility and read the documents. They’re all there, every email, every intelligence report. Literally a second-by-second chronology. And the documents make it clear that, as unfortunate as the situation was, there was nothing to avoid it, once the Ambassador made the decision to go to Benghazi.

Here, we have these breathtaking assumptions, first that there was a chemical weapons attack, which is now credible, but they didn't give us the intelligence. Then we have the assumption that’s in dispute, that it was carried out by the Syrian army. The intelligence is on the side of the United States, but a dozen former intelligence officials sent a letter saying no, it was carried out by the rebels. Why do I have to hear that from former intelligence officials, saying that they’re hearing that from current intelligence officials, when the current intelligence officials are kept away from Congress? Then there’s the question of who ordered the attack? Lots of reports say it was not ordered by Assad. Reuters and the Guardian say Assad tried to prevent it. And this colors the entire war strategy. If Assad ordered it, there’s a legitimate question of how to prevent future attacks. If he didn't, you have a breakdown in command and control, and the prescription is different. An attack would make it worse, not better.

So that’s the different facts before you even get to the benefits and costs. We’re simply supposed to rely upon these two documents of talking points, and on that basis we’re supposed to decide whether to give advise and consent for another war.

Note: We also spoke with Grayson about the economy, and will publish that conversation later in the week.

By David Dayen

David Dayen is a journalist who writes about economics and finance. He is the author of "Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud," winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize, and coauthor of the book "Fat Cat: The Steve Mnuchin Story." He is an investigative fellow with In These Times and contributes to the Intercept, the New Republic and the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in the Nation, the American Prospect, Vice, the Huffington Post and more. He has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, CNBC, NPR and Pacifica Radio. He lives in Los Angeles.

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