Democrats Ready for Syrian Strike, Republicans Reluctant: Tables Turned

Photographer Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

A U.S. soldier from the 2nd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment walks past an Ashura banner picturing Imam Hussein as they patrol along a Shiite neighbourhood in Baghdad, on January 18, 2008.

Sen. Dick Durbin, who later served as a mentor to Sen. Barack Obama, was one of many Democrats who voted against the U.S. going to war in Iraq.

The vote in the Senate, on Oct. 11, 2002, was 77-23.

Only one Republican voted against the resolution, approved by 48 others, while 21 Democrats and one independent voted no and 29 Democrats voted yes.

If Obama had been a senator then, based on his statements at the time, he too would have opposed President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

Having voted against the “shock and awe” that enveloped Baghdad months later, Durbin said yesterday, “the events that transpired afterwards gave me some justification for my vote.”

“It’s one of the toughest calls we’ll ever make as members of Congress,” said Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who had voted to authorize military force in Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, though he says now that he never knew he was authorizing a decade-long war. “I understand this president,” Durbin said of Obama at the Senate hearing yesterday, “I understand his values, but I take it very seriously that the language be as precise as possible when it comes to this whole question of expanding this mission into something much larger, something that would engage us in a new level of warfare or a new authority for this president or a future president.”

Now, as Obama seeks congressional approval for a “limited” and “proportional” strike against Syria because of its evident deployment of chemical weapons that killed more than 1,400 people near Damascus, it is many Republicans that are having a harder time accepting the mission. Many Democrats, it appears, are ready to go.

“Keep in mind, I’m somebody who opposed the war in Iraq,” Obama said today in Sweden, at a Stockholm press conference en route to a G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. Pointing to the failed intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, he said, in this case there is no question about the use of chemical weapons by the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The president also suggested that it is not his credibility at stake in the decision Congress faces today.

“First of all, I didn’t set a red line — the world set a red line,” Obama said. “When I said in a press conference that my calculus about what’s happening in Syria would be altered by the use of chemical weapons… I didn’t pluck it out of thin air. There’s a reason for it… My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line…”

The quickly won approval of House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, following a meeting of congressional leaders at the White House, is an important exception to the difficulty the administration faces convincing Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Yet Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary and longtime adviser to Obama from his Senate days, suggests that Boehner’s ability to corral the support of his majority caucus is limited. He’d rather have the backing of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, which Obama does — Gibbs said so in an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” this morning. It will be Pelosi’s task, Gibbs said, to deliver a majority of her caucus in support of the president — given that Boehner is unlikely to deliver a majority of his own.

The rift between Republicans and Democrats in the current debate was most starkly drawn in the confrontation yesterday between Secretary of State John Kerry, who first appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a 27-year-old protester of the war in Vietnam and later served as its chairman, and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, an opponent of U.S. involvement in Syria and potential presidential contender in 2016 who sits on the panel today. The chairs were reversed as Kerry, there for testimony, lectured Paul, there as a committee member.

“There are all kinds of unknowns that I can’t tell you absolutely the answer, and neither can you,” Paul told Kerry, “but I think there’s a reasonable argument that the world may be less stable because of this [action against Syria] and that it may not deter any chemical weapons attack.”

“If the United States of America doesn’t do this, senator, is it more or less likely that Assad does it again?” Kerry asked. “You want to answer that question?”

“I don’t think it’s known,” Paul said.

“It’s unknown?” Kerry snapped, interrupting his interrogator. “Senator, it’s not unknown. If the United States of America doesn’t hold him accountable on this, with our allies and friends, it’s a guarantee Assad will do it again. A guarantee. And I urge you to go to the classified briefing and learn that.”

So the senators will get their classified briefing today, with a vote of approval from the Democratic-controlled committee for a limited military strike expected — a 90-day air-based mission banning American “boots on the ground.”

And the House Foreign Affairs Committee will convene at noon, with Republican leaders facing the challenge of convincing their own caucus of a cause that congressional Democrats in both chambers are embracing.


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