Q&A: Nancy Pelosi Talks About Syria With TIME

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Carolyn Kaster / AP

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. speaks to reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013.

Leading the minority party in Congress can be a marginal, thankless role. But as Barack Obama tries to thread a resolution through Congress to authorize the use of military force in Syria, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is playing a pivotal role in selling the decision to a skeptical caucus. Pelosi talked to TIME by phone on the evening of Sept. 3, hours after she made the case for punitive missile strikes against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad during a meeting at the White House. Below are excerpts of her comments, which are condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

How is Syria different from Iraq?

This is distinctly different from what happened in Iraq in a couple of respects. First and foremost, evidence, the intelligence, did not support the threat that was being described by the Bush Administration at the time. I was a senior Democrat on the Intelligence committee, and was one who received all of the documents—by law, they must show us what the documentation is. The evidence did not support the threat.

The intelligence this time does support the facts: that the Bashar Assad regime is responsible for the chemical weapons attack on [his] own people. Any violation of human rights, all of the killings that went on, really challenged the conscience of the world. But when you use a weapon of mass destruction against your own people … you not only challenge the conscience of the world, you challenge the credibility of the world leadership.

Is there lingering fatigue from Iraq?

The country is weary of war. There is absolutely no question about that. My caucus is a reflection of our constituents and they are weary of war. They do not want involvement. And that’s why we weren’t involved even though 100,000 people have been killed already in the conflict in Syria.

What the Bush administration was asking the country to do on the basis of a false premise was to go to war. This isn’t about going to war. This is about a limited, tailored strike, of short duration, for a purpose, which is the use of weapons of mass destruction.

If this is approved, does it set a precedent?

We’re talking about a highly unusual event…Hopefully, if this does happen, it will be a message to everyone—the North Koreans, the Iranians, the Syrians, anyone who would use a WMD or threaten to use one—that that’s probably not a good idea.

Can you get a majority of your caucus? Is that important?

I don’t know. I think it would be important to get a majority in the Congress. But I don’t know if it’s important how you would break it down. These issues are not really partisan.

Are we now going to be doing this every place? No. It is in our national security interest to do it, because [Assad] crossed a line when he used chemical weapons. President Obama did not draw a red line. That was drawn by humanity decades ago, to say that this is unacceptable. To ignore it is only to encourage those who would follow suit.

That is, I think, the challenge that we all have, that the president certainly has: [to present] the evidence that he did this, why is it in our interest to do something about it, what does it mean to regional stability, to our national security and to global security. And in think there is a very strong case that can be made in those regards.

What was your reaction to the decision to bring this to Congress?

I was encouraging consultation. I did not believe that the President needs to get authorization from congress. I think that it is great that he asked for it. I think that it strengthens his hand, and our country’s hand, and our moral standing to Bashar Assad to have Congress support it. But it’s a challenge for the reasons you mentioned. It’s a challenge because the country is weary of war. This is a president who has taken us out of two wars. He has unwound the Iraq War and now the Afghanistan War. He knows, as Commander-in-chief, better than anybody how weary of war our country is.

What does it tell us about Obama?

I can’t say that it isn’t something that I didn’t know before, but I certainly do think that it’s a sign of strength… I would say he’s a tough hombre.

If the vote passes, will there be a greater deterrence factor in the future, because the world knows the American people were behind it?

I would hope that that would have some impact. But just bc other countries don’t want to assume a responsibility doesn’t mean that we can’t. Another point that I think is important now is people are saying I want to see what the UN will do. Well, the Security Council is becoming a convoy; it goes as slow as the slowest ship. And the slowest ship is the President of Russia. If that’s the standard by which we measure our responsibilities, then we’ll probably never do very much.

As a historical narrative it’s striking that you, someone who became the first woman speaker in large part because of a war that had gone badly, are now leading the charge for more military intervention.

I’m not exactly leading the charge. But I’m supporting the president.

You’re one of the most vocal in Congress.

It does not represent any change in me… This is a completely different situation. The only similarity it has is that it involves the use of force. So if you’re saying, you didn’t want to use force in Iraq, yes. And you do want to have a targeted, limited strike in Syria? Yes. I think it’s two different sets of facts.

The polls are even worse today on the question of Syria than they were on Iraq.

I don’t know that anybody has walked up to me in the street or in a store or in the grocery and said to me, I hope you bomb Assad. Certainly plenty have said no; thumbs down, thumbs down, thumbs down.

[Obama] winding down the other two wars is an indication. It gives him credibility about being very, very careful about the use of force. Nobody takes it lightly, but he takes it as seriously as requires it.

Who are we, as a country? You know, we are the superpower. If other countries do not want to fight this fight, then we have to decide if that’s what we want to do. And maybe we will, and maybe we won’t. But at least we’ll be able to say we had a chance to do something and we did it. Or [decide that we] don’t think it was worth it. And that changes everything. That changes a great deal. I don’t think we should be gassing little kids, but what business is it of mine? No. It’s plenty business of yours. Because they have crossed a line.

MAGAZINE: Syria: Inside the D.C. War