NOEL KING, HOST:
President Trump is tweeting this morning about a possible U.S. airstrike against Syria. The president wrote - never said when an attack on Syria would take place, could be very soon or not so soon at all. Meanwhile, the president's nominee for secretary of state is making his way through the confirmation process. If he is confirmed, Mike Pompeo will likely help decide what role the U.S. will play in Syria.
This morning, Pompeo, the outgoing CIA director, faces a confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland sits on that committee, and he's with us now. Senator, welcome back to MORNING EDITION.
BEN CARDIN: Noel, it's good to be with you. Thank you.
KING: All right, so what questions do you have for Mike Pompeo?
CARDIN: I think the first thing we want to know is whether he will be an independent voice in the White House, that he'll stand up for American values and the importance of diplomacy. And that will be tested. It will be tested in regards to the Iran nuclear agreement, North Korea, the most recent problems in Syria, Russia, Iran. There are a lot of the issues that we want to make sure that the top diplomat for America works with our partners, upholding our values but looking for diplomacy for answers.
KING: Yeah, diplomacy in a little bit of a tough position right now. Pompeo says one of his first priorities will be to empower State Department employees. He is, of course, acknowledging many reports that the State Department is facing a real morale problem at the moment. Do you have confidence that he's going to follow through on that - on that remark?
CARDIN: Well, I am looking forward to the hearing. I think it's critically important that the secretary of state recognizes that he needs to fill the positions at the State Department, work with the career diplomats, encourage the experienced people to stay and make sure that we have the capacity to deal with the global problems. So it really does require top management skills and supporting the agency, and that is desperately needed.
KING: Senator, let me turn now to Syria. The president appears to be saying that he is going to order strikes against the Syrian regime. Do you think the U.S. should do that?
CARDIN: Clearly, what President Assad has done in the use of chemical weapons cannot go unchallenged. The international community must respond. The U.S. must be in the leadership. It needs to be comprehensive. President Assad needs to be brought before a war crimes tribunal for his war crimes. I've introduced legislation with Senator Rubio - bipartisan legislation - to move us forward on that responsibility.
Secondly, we need to take action against Russia because Russia is facilitating this. Now, that's working with the international community. We have a sanction regime that has not been fully utilized. We need to put more pressure on Russia to stop supporting President Assad. And then in regards to some type of a military response, it's got to be very, very measured. We do not want to get engaged in a civil war in Syria. And we need to work with our allies in that regard.
KING: What might a measured response look like, Senator?
CARDIN: Well, I think the main effort here is to eliminate Syria - President Assad's ability to use chemical weapons. So I hope it would be targeted towards its facilitating the use of chemical weapons.
KING: One year ago, the president ordered missile strikes against Syria after a different chemical attack. That did not prevent this one. Does that mean that this - if we were to strike Syria, if the U.S. were to strike Syria, it would need to be a more forceful strike?
CARDIN: We have to work with our allies. The president needs to consult with Congress. This should not be a unilateral decision made by one person. It needs to involve the Congress and our allies. We want to make sure that we respond to the threat of the use of chemical weapons, but we do not want to get engaged in a civil war in Syria. We also have to concentrate on eliminating ISIS in that region. So there are multiple factors here. To me, the most effective way to deal with President Assad is to bring him before a war crimes tribunal and try him as a war criminal.
KING: Yes, if indeed he could be brought before one. I want to play a clip of tape from one of your colleagues, Tim Kaine. He was on All Things Considered yesterday. He said, the president does not have the authority to act on his own on this. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TIM KAINE: If this president can decide unilaterally to bomb Syria, I worry that he can make the same decision about North Korea or Iran or other nations. And these decisions are not supposed to be made without consultation and voting by Congress.
KING: We just have a couple seconds left. Do you agree with him that it should be Congress's job to authorize military action against the Syrian government?
CARDIN: I absolutely believe that Congress must be involved in the decision. The president needs the consultation and perhaps authorization depending on what type of action he determines.
KING: Senator Ben Cardin, Democrat of Maryland. He joined us on Skype. Thank you, Senator.
CARDIN: Good to be with you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.