Continued from page 1

One of the most surprising aspects of the debate is how unconvincing the Obama administration’s case has been. Far from winning over support, the president and his aides appear to be losing it the more they brief Congress or speak publicly about it.

That was true for Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican in his first term, who has said he cannot support the president’s call for strikes.

“With each classified briefing that I’ve gotten, I have become less inclined rather than more inclined to think that we should have any involvement in that civil war, and [last] week was no exception,” Mr. Lee said. “Almost every argument that they made, even though they were arguing quite aggressively in favor of military action in Syria by the United States, almost everything they said had the opposite effect on me.”

Last week, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey testified in two open sessions to Congress; Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, delivered a speech laying out the administration’s case; and officials conducted a number of closed-door briefings to go into even more detail.

Like nearly every other lawmaker who has spoken about it, Mr. Lee said the issue is not with the case that Mr. Assad’s troops used chemical weapons. The senator said the administration has made that case convincingly.

But in a classified hearing of the Armed Services Committee, Mr. Lee asked Mr. Hagel about the specific course of action the administration was proposing. While not able to share details, the senator said he couldn’t get an answer that was persuasive enough to take the risk of an attack.

“Their proposed course of action would at best modestly degrade the ability of the Assad regime to carry out additional chemical weapons attacks. But when you modestly degrade that capacity, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not going to do it again,” he said.

Assad might wake up the day after something like that occurs and say, ‘Look, I’m still alive, my military infrastructure is still intact, I’m in charge and I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. At that point, what do we do? Does it not lock us in even further to carry out additional attacks?” he said. “Doesn’t that get us involved, headlong, into a very complicated, very intense, protracted civil war? So deeper involvement is almost inevitable.”

Calls to Mr. Lee’s office are running 50-to-1 against striking, and he said the volume and the intensity of feedback are high: “Almost all of them seem to take the same form — almost everybody who’s calling me or writing me seems to be saying don’t get us involved in another war, and that’s where this leads. This isn’t our fight to fight.”

Mr. Lee said he accepts Mr. Obama’s “red line” against chemical weapons use but added that it doesn’t automatically follow that it’s the job of the U.S. to inject itself into this conflict, particularly when it may mean acting alone.

“The risks associated with this type of intervention are really high, and what we stand to gain as a result of it cannot, and does not, in my mind, even come close to justifying the corresponding risks,” he said. “In other words, if we’re going to take on a risk this big, what we have to gain as far as making Americans safer needs to be pretty good, our likelihood to achieve it needs to be pretty strong. What I see when I look at this proposed military intervention is a lot of risk and not a lot of upside to justify taking the risk associated with this military intervention.”

The undecided

For Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, the “red line” of chemical weapons is the overriding factor as he decides how to vote.

“For me, this is an issue, a profound moral issue for our generation, for our time, and we’ve got to step up to this plate,” he said.

Mr. Connolly, a third-term Democrat representing Virginia, is floating a proposal with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, that would restrict the president more severely. Their plan would allow strikes only to deter use of chemical weapons. It would not authorize Mr. Obama to prevent the Assad regime from stockpiling or aiding in the proliferation of chemical weapons.

Story Continues →