- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2013

Their constituents are against it, their party leaders in Congress are generally for it, and President Obama has declared it a moral imperative — leaving rank-and-file members to sort it all out and take a career-defining vote on whether to authorize military strikes on Syria.

For some, the decision to approve strikes is about international human rights and chemical weapons.


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PHOTOS: Syria attack: High-stakes decisions on Capitol Hill are yes, no and maybe


For others, it’s part of a broader war on terrorism that Republicans in particular say Mr. Obama has been losing, and they see a chance for the president to get back on track in confronting radical Islam.

For what appears to be a growing number in Congress, the decision is a referendum on Mr. Obama’s competency: Do they trust him to manage the attack in the limited way he says and not get drawn into the larger Syrian civil war?

The Washington Times spoke with three lawmakers about their decision-making, and what came through in each case was how seriously the members were studying the briefings provided by the administration and working through the pitfalls and possibilities of a strike.

The ‘yes’ vote


SEE ALSO: Sen. Rand Paul: Results of Congress’ Syria vote should be binding


For Rep. Mike Pompeo, a West Point graduate who also has a Harvard law degree, support for strikes against President Bashar Assad’s regime is a decision he makes almost in spite of, rather than because of, the case the president and his aides have laid out.

The second-term Republican from Kansas said the president has been disengaged from the Middle East and has allowed America’s enemies to become emboldened, with the Syria situation as one result. But that doesn’t mean the president isn’t right to order a military strike.

“As much as I think the president caused this problem — our weakness over the last few years in the Middle East has absolutely been provocative to Iran and Hezbollah — that doesn’t get members of Congress off the hook. We have an independent constitutional responsibility to get foreign policy right,” he said in a phone interview Sunday after returning from his most recent trip to the region.

For Mr. Pompeo, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, allowing Mr. Assad’s actions to go unanswered is the same as sending a green light to other U.S. enemies. He says Iran, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood are just a few that would see U.S. inaction as a permission slip. In the case of Iran, that means producing nuclear weapons.

Mr. Obama has erred, Mr. Pompeo said, in pushing strikes only as a response to chemical weapons.

“They pinned their entire cause for action on Assad’s chemical strikes. While I’m as troubled and terrified by the use of chemical weapons, it’s problematic to allow chemical weapons use to go unanswered. But that’s not the sole rationale, and it’s the one the president is presenting,” he said. “He is deeply conflicted about this. I’m not. I’m deeply aware of the concerns, but I’m not conflicted.”

Mr. Pompeo wrote an op-ed with Rep. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican and another Army veteran, in The Washington Post last week urging their colleagues to back the use of force.

“We share the concern that Obama won’t execute a proper strategic response. We worry that his action will more resemble President Bill Clinton’s ineffective response to the 1998 African embassy bombings rather than the 1999 Kosovo campaign. But Congress shouldn’t guarantee a bad outcome for our country because of fears that the president will execute an imperfect military campaign,” the two congressmen wrote.

The ‘no’ vote

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.

“That broader goal is a worthy one, but our proposal would not authorize the use of military force to accomplish it in this instance,” the two lawmakers said in a letter to their colleagues.

At a town hall meeting with seniors in his Northern Virginia district last week, Mr. Connolly put the question to a show of hands: Should the U.S. strike without reservation, recognizing it’s time to take leadership; should it take a humble approach and stay out, deciding that while chemical weapons use violates laws, 100,000 others have been killed by conventional weapons, and the U.S. can’t intervene everywhere; or does the nature of chemical weapons require a limited retaliation in order to uphold international norms?

He said there were no hands for the first option, about 10 for the second option, and 80 hands for the third, middle-of-the-road option.

Mr. Connolly, who served as a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a decade and specialized in the Middle East, said he knows that voters — and many of his colleagues in Congress — are wary of any involvement in the region after the Iraq War.

But he rejected the comparison, saying Syria is not Iraq, there is no doubt that chemical weapons have been used, and Mr. Assad has a stockpile of more weapons he could use again. Also, he said, Mr. Obama is not George W. Bush.

“This president is the opposite of that president. This president would prefer not to. He certainly has no secret plans to invade them or to put boots on the ground,” Mr. Connolly said.

As he considers his vote, he has ruled out some options. If the vote is on the resolution Mr. Obama submitted to Congress, Mr. Connolly said, he would vote “no” because it is too open-ended and reminds him of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and the Iraq War experience.

As for the Senate resolution, which authorizes limited strikes and prohibits combat troops, he said he would “have to think long and hard” about voting for it — particularly after Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, added language pressing for a broader U.S. role in trying to aid the rebels battling the Assad regime.

That language was added to make sure the resolution passed the committee — but it means the Senate moved even further away from where the House appears to be.

“The question for me is can we fashion a very targeted, very limited resolution allowing strikes on a very limited basis, and for only two purposes: One is to retaliate and to punish for the heinous crime that occurred on Aug. 21, and to deter any future use by Assad,” Mr. Connolly said.

“We can’t eliminate risk, including the risk we hit the wrong target. It’s happened before. But the fact that we have not been able to come up with zero risk ought to eliminate doing anything is simply illogical,” he said. “Yeah, there’s risk, [but] there’s enormous risk in doing nothing.”