ST. PETER. Minn. – U.S. Rep. Tim Walz asked his constituents Friday to step up and tell him whether the United States should take military action against Syria.
Their answer was unanimous: Don’t do it.
“This is just a precursor to another war,” said Kent Wilson Jones of Lake Crystal, filing through a slow-moving line to speak to Walz at the St. Peter Food Coop.
“I’m tired of the United States acting like Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon,’ ” added Larry Hlavsa of New Ulm.
Julie Quist, a longtime GOP activist and former assistant to U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, was among those who waited to speak: “We don’t believe the president and we don’t believe [Secretary of State] John Kerry.”
“I hear you loud and clear,” Walz said, over and over, as about 150 people filed past him.
The event comes as the House and Senate prepare to vote on whether to support President Obama’s proposal to launch a military strike that would degrade Syria’s offensive capabilities. With public support across the country coming down firmly against any military intervention, Obama plans to address the nation Tuesday.
Walz, a Mankato Democrat in his fourth term representing southern Minnesota’s First Congressional District, is among those who must decide. A former teacher, Walz also served 24 years in the Army National Guard. He has not said how he will vote. But he was impressed by the unanimous verdict that citizens delivered on Friday. “People showed up here today to say no,” Walz said afterward. He said he is “incredibly skeptical” of the need to use military force, and the views he heard Friday “enhanced” his skepticism.
The crowd Walz faced ran the gamut, from Obama supporters to military veterans to GOP activists and even Jim Hagedorn, a Republican who plans to run against Walz next year. All waited patiently in a line that snaked past the market’s food aisles and check-out counters and ended in the tomato bin, near the back of the store.
Most who approached were polite, but worried. The Iraq experience was cited as a reason to doubt the accuracy of chemical weapons claims against Syrian President Bashar Assad. The tribal and political complexity of the region, and the inability to find a “good guy” to back in Syria, also were cited as arguments against U.S. involvement.
Some were weary of the seemingly endless wars of the post-9/11 era.
Marlene Breckner of Elysian said the United States cannot stop the “everlasting dissension” in the Middle East, no matter how hard it tries. “We really aren’t making a difference,” she said. “And our young men — we don’t want any more deaths.”
Breckner’s husband, Joe, added: “The people that are really going to be hurt are probably conscripts in the Syrian army,” referring to those who would feel the effects of U.S. rocket strikes. “It’s going to be that low man on the totem pole.”
Bill Rood of Rochester cited the U.N. charter in arguing that unilateral U.S. action would violate international law, even if Congress approves. The United Nations and international war crimes courts have “established procedure to adjudicate this kind of thing,” he said. “To go outside that established procedure is vigilantism.”
No good options
Walz, wearing jeans and an open-collared shirt, listened intently for two hours. He said he believes there is considerable evidence that Assad was responsible for the attacks and should be punished in some way. But he questions how a military strike would affect the Syrian civil war, which will continue whether or not the U.S. takes action, and wonders whether the U.S. has exhausted all possibilities for a diplomatic solution.
Syria will remain “deeply divided,” and it’s not clear that regime opponents are worthy of U.S. support, Walz said. “It’s not good guys versus bad guys,” he said. “The Arab Spring has unleashed forces that are very hard to understand.”
Hlavsa and others criticized Obama for taking a go-it-alone approach, for which he criticized his predecessor, George W. Bush. “I’m tired of thinking that we can do it without world support,” said Hlavsa.
Bryce Stenzel of St. Clair urged Walz to take on the executive branch on war powers. “Only the Congress has the power to declare war. You need to take your power back,” he told the congressman. Hagedorn added that Obama promised to “lead the world,” but “now it looks like we’re going it alone.” Obama, who was at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday, announced later that 11 nations had signed a statement calling for a “strong international response to this grave violation of the world’s rules and conscience.”
“The devil we know is better than the devil we don’t know,” said Azad Mesrobian, of St. Peter, who is of Armenian descent.
Kathryn Christenson of St. Peter voted twice for Obama and is angry at him. “This is not the man I voted for,” she said, citing his campaign themes of “change” and “hope.” She said her grandson-soldier was wounded in Afghanistan in 2010. Another military action, she said, is “the last thing we ought to do.”
Walz, accustomed to divergent views on all issues, was stunned by the forcefulness of the one-note message.
“I have never seen this happen — absolutely unanimous in opposition to military force at this time,” Walz said. “It’s pretty powerful.” He said he believes Minnesotans have learned to be skeptical from the buildup to war in Iraq, based on concerns about weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist.
“They learned their lesson over the last decade about questioning evidence for war, and making that bar very high,” Walz said.