War weariness could be felt on both ends of the Minnesota congressional delegation Tuesday, even as momentum was building in Congress for military action against Syria.
Among the most outspoken voices opposing a missile strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad for his government’s alleged use of chemical weapons are Reps. Michele Bachmann, a conservative Republican, and Rick Nolan, a freshman Democrat and a veteran of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War.
The two illustrate the tough sell President Obama could face next week in the House, where antiwar liberals are joining with anti-Obama conservatives in creating a sense of ambivalence about a U.S. military strike in Syria.
Bachmann echoed skeptical lawmakers on the right and left who argue that Obama has not demonstrated neither a vital national security interest in the Syrian conflict nor a clear strategy on what the use of force is intended to accomplish.
“I am adamantly opposed to President Obama starting another war in the Middle East and plan to vote against military intervention in Syria,” Bachmann said. “We have bad actors and bad options on both sides in Syria, with many of the rebels working with Al-Qaida-affiliated groups.”
For some on the left, the prevailing mood is against miring the United States in another intractable overseas adventure after Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nolan, returning from Washington after a three-hour classified briefing on Syria, said that what he learned during the session “only served to convince me more than ever of the folly and danger of getting America involved in the Syrian civil war.”
Nolan, who reportedly got into a heated exchange with Secretary of State John Kerry during the briefing, also expressed doubts about the evidence against Assad. Some have suggested the rebels could be behind the attacks, though Kerry sharply disputed that contention “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But Nolan said even if the case can be made that Assad is guilty of using chemical weapons, “he should be charged and tried in an international court of law.”
Hearings were held Tuesday in the Senate, where Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made the case for the White House.
“We’re not asking for America to go to war,” Kerry told a packed Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, which was interrupted by protesters. What the president seeks, Kerry said, is to degrade and deter Assad’s chemical weapons capacity and make clear “that the United States means what we say.”
But all bets are off among the rank and file in the GOP-led House, even as leaders in both parties say they will back Obama in taking action against Assad.
The GOP caucus is populated by a mix of foreign policy hawks and libertarians critical of Obama’s handling of the Syrian uprising. Minnesota Republican Erik Paulsen is neither, but he, too, is voicing skepticism, calling the president’s request for military action in Syria “too broad, too open-ended [and] too risky.”
A line drawn ‘by humanity’
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons was drawn not by the White House, but by “humanity.”
Still, other Democrats remember the 2002 Iraq war resolution based on what turned out to be faulty intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapon capabilities.
Even some who might have favored U.S. intervention at some point in the conflict now say it is too late, that any damage to the Assad regime would only help Al-Qaida and other extremist elements in the rebel ranks.
One of Minnesota’s leading political centrists, rural Democrat Collin Peterson, added his voice Tuesday to those in Congress who oppose intervention.
“What’s going on in Syria is deplorable,” Peterson said, “but at this point, I don’t see how U.S. military action will accomplish anything toward ending the turmoil over there or helping the people of Syria, which is my main concern.”
Peterson added that while he’s “willing to listen” to the president, he has not “heard anything at this point that will change my mind.”
The Obama administration blames Assad for an Aug. 21 alleged chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus. U.S. officials say the attack killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children, although those numbers are significantly higher than the death toll of 355 provided by the aid group Doctors Without Borders.
Minneapolis Democrat Keith Ellison, usually one of the most dovish Minnesotans in Congress, was among the first to endorse military action, however reluctantly. Ellison said that while he understands the risks, “nations with the power to act have a responsibility to enforce international norms that murderous dictators will face consequences when they commit crimes against humanity.”
U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said “there have to be consequences” for such a chemical attack. But he also warned that “there are no good options on Syria,” adding, “whatever action the United States takes, it has to be limited action.”
Less strident reactions
Fellow Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar has been much more equivocal in the Senate, releasing a statement saying Congress should “carefully consider the evidence and consult with military officials before making a decision.”
Statements by Minnesota Republican John Kline and Democrat Tim Walz also were noncommittal. Kline, a retired Marine colonel, said the administration put the United States in a “difficult position” by publicly urging a “red line” with Syria. “America’s credibility is now in question and the world is watching,” said Kline, adding that Obama now “must make the case” with a clear plan to stop Assad.
Walz called the chemical attacks “despicable,” saying there is “a moral responsibility to defend the defenseless.” But, he said, “we cannot rush into this.”
Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum said she would wait on final legislative language before making a decision, but agreed that the evidence against the Syrian regime is “undeniable.” McCollum called for “an unequivocal response from the U.S. and the international community,” and warned against “unilateral military action.”
“President Obama’s plan can only be successful if the world is standing with the U.S.,” she said.
If there is any consensus in Congress going into the next week’s debate, it is that all sides have vowed that any U.S. military intervention should not lead to “boots on the ground,” something Kerry has vowed will not occur.
Follow Kevin Diaz on Twitter @StribDiaz.