Barack Obama worked yesterday to persuade sceptical politicians to endorse a US military intervention in Syria.
The president won conditional support from two leading Senate foreign policy hawks, but encountered resistance from members of his own party after two days of a determined push to sell the plan.
Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said Mr Obama still needs to make a strong case for attacking the regime of President Bashar Assad.
But they toned down past criticism that the president’s plan was too weak to change the course of the fighting in Syria in favour of the opposition.
“We have to make it clear that a vote against this would be catastrophic in its consequences,” now and in future international crises, Mr McCain said following an hour-long private meeting that he and Mr Graham had with Mr Obama.
But the outcome of any vote remained in doubt amid continued scepticism in a war-weary Congress.
Several Democrats in a conference call with administration officials questioned both the intelligence about a chemical attack last month outside Damascus and the value of an intervention to US interests.
“The White House has put forward a proposed bill authorising the use of force that, as drafted, is far too broad and open ended, and could be used to justify everything from a limited cruise missile strike to a no fly zone and the introduction of American ground troops,” said Democrat Adam Schiff, a member of the House of Representatives intelligence committee.
The president announced over the weekend that he will seek approval for military strikes against the Assad regime to respond to an attack in the Damascus suburbs last month that the US says included sarin gas and killed at least 1,429 civilians.
That decision sets the stage for the biggest foreign policy vote in Congress since the Iraq war. A vote could come once politicians return from the summer break, which is scheduled to end on Monday.
Before then, Mr Obama must sell the idea to a nation scarred by more than a decade of war.
In a post on his website, Democrat Representative Rick Nolan reflected a view shared by others: “I want you to know that I am vehemently opposed to a military strike that would clearly be an act of war against Syria, especially under such tragic yet confusing circumstances as to who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons.”
“My impression is that a lot of people are up for grabs,” Mr McCain said.
Mr Obama was trying to find a middle ground that would attract a majority in the House and the Senate – a difficult task complicated further because Obama is leaving for a three-day trip to Europe tonight, visiting Stockholm, Sweden, and then attending an economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The visit is all the more significant because Russia has sided with the Syrian regime. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said yesterday the information the US showed Moscow to prove the Syrian regime was behind the chemical attack was “absolutely unconvincing”.