published Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Barack Obama: I might lose congressional vote on Syria

Peace activists opposed to American intervention in Syria gather on a street corner near the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Monday. As Congress returns to work from August recess, President Barack Obama is seeking authorization from Congress for a military strike against Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons in the civil war there.
Peace activists opposed to American intervention in Syria gather on a street corner near the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Monday. As Congress returns to work from August recess, President Barack Obama is seeking authorization from Congress for a military strike against Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons in the civil war there.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Poll
Can Syria be trusted to turn over its chemical weapons?
Most Americans oppose strike on Syria

WASHINGTON — Only 1 in 5 Americans believe that failing to respond to chemical weapons attacks in Syria would embolden other rogue governments, rejecting the heart of a weeks-long White House campaign for U.S. military strikes, an Associated Press poll has concluded.

The poll of 1,007 adults nationwide found that most Americans oppose even a limited attack on Syria — likely with cruise missiles — despite Obama administration warnings that inaction would risk national security and ignore a gruesome humanitarian crisis. And a slim majority — 53 percent — fear that a strike would lead to a long-term U.S. military commitment in Syria.

The survey reflects a U.S. public that is tired of Mideast wars after a dozen years of military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. It undercuts political support President Barack Obama is hoping to garner as he seeks congressional authorization this week to strike the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“We need to stop being so aggressive militarily,” Izzy Briggs, a business services consultant from Epsom, N.H., said Monday. “I think these small countries are feeling very intimidated by the U.S. and some feel they have to have these sorts of weapons.”

U.S. officials have cited a high confidence in intelligence that indicates Assad’s government launched the Aug. 21 attacks that they say killed more than 1,400 Syrians. Obama last year warned Assad that using chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would amount to a “red line” that, if crossed, would bring a swift U.S. response.

In the weeks since the attacks, the administration has argued that hostile governments in Iran and North Korea, and extremist groups like Hezbollah, would be more likely to use weapons of mass destruction in future conflicts if Assad is not punished. To bolster the case, U.S. officials last weekend also released grim video footage showing young children gasping for breath and rows of dead bodies in the hours after the chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs.

But support in Congress is lukewarm at best, and many lawmakers have questioned whether the strikes would create more of a problem for the U.S. than they would help the nearly three-year effort to overthrow Assad.

“We must balance the legitimate concerns that Americans have about the use of military force with our strategic interests,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who on Monday announced she would not support the White House plan.

U.S. opposition to striking Syria cuts across party lines, as does doubt that an American attack would deter other world leaders from using chemical weapons.

The poll indicated that 53 percent of Democrats, 59 percent of independents and 73 percent of Republicans believe Congress should vote against the plan to strike Syria. Only one out of four Democrats think that an attack would deter other world leaders from acquiring and using chemical weapons; even fewer Republicans and independents agreed.

“It’s not good what they’re doing to their own people, but we don’t want to start World War III,” said Rosie Vega, a retired receptionist who was at a Glendale, Calif., bakery on Monday morning.

Overall, 61 percent of people surveyed said they wanted Congress to vote against authorizing U.S. military strikes in Syria, the poll found. By comparison, 26 percent said they supported it, and the rest were undecided.

Just 16 percent of Americans said they did not think that the limited strikes would lead to a longer military campaign, the poll indicated. And an overwhelming majority — 75 percent — said they do not support sending U.S. troops to Syria. Obama has already pledged that will not happen.

The Syria dilemma has become a major test of Obama’s political mettle on national security and foreign policy issues. After months of resisting U.S. military action in Syria, the White House abruptly reversed course after the Aug. 21 attacks — only to confront withering public support both at home and abroad.

The AP poll found that 54 percent of people do not approve the way Obama has handled the U.S. response to Syria. That marked an increase from 43 percent in June 2012.

Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, said Obama is likely to play on Americans’ emotions to convince them to support strikes.

“It is very difficult for a president to persuade people when they’ve already made up their mind against some type of foreign intervention,” West said Monday. “But what he can do is basically explain much better than he has done to date about what has been going on in Syria, the use of chemical weapons, the impact on young children and women there.”

Released Monday, the AP poll was conducted Sept. 6-8 by GfK Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,007 adults nationwide. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points; it is larger for subgroups.

WASHINGTON — Battling stiff resistance in Congress, President Barack Obama conceded Monday night he might lose his fight for congressional support of a military strike against Syria, and declined to say what he would do if lawmakers reject his call to back retaliation for a chemical weapons attack last month.

The president made his comments as a glimmer of a possible diplomatic solution appeared after months of defiance from the Russian-backed government of President Bashar Assad in Syria. In a rapid response, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cited “international discussions” in unexpectedly postponing a test vote originally set for Wednesday on Obama’s call for legislation backing a military strike.

In a series of six network interviews planned as part of a furious lobbying campaign in Congress, Obama said statements suggesting that Syria might agree to surrender control of its chemical weapons stockpile were a potentially positive development.

At the same time, he said they were yet another reason for lawmakers to give him the backing he is seeking.

“If we don’t maintain and move forward with a credible threat of military pressure, I do not think we will actually get the kind of agreement I would like to see,” he said on CNN.

In a separate interview with NBC, the president took the step — unusual for any politician — of conceding he may lose his campaign in Congress for legislation authorizing a military strike. “I wouldn’t say I’m confident” of the outcome, he said.

“I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t decided” on a next step if Congress turns its back, the president told NBC, part of a furious lobbying campaign aimed at winning support from dubious lawmakers as well as a war-weary public.

The president picked up a smattering of support but also suffered a reversal when Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, announced he had switched from a backer of military action to an opponent.

“They’re in tough shape. It is getting late,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., after he and other lawmakers emerged from a closed-door meeting with administration officials. The New York Republican favors the legislation that Obama wants, but he said the president didn’t need to seek it and now must show that a strike “is in America’s national security interest.”

Classified briefings for lawmakers just back from vacation, the public release of cringe-inducing videos of men, women and children writhing in agony from the evident effects of chemical gas, and a half-dozen network news interviews featuring Obama were folded into the White House bid to avert a humiliating defeat over the next 10 days. Obama met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus during the day, and arranged a trip to the Capitol as well as a prime-time speech from the East Room of the White House on Tuesday.

In the Senate, Reid said he had discussed a delay in Wednesday’s scheduled initial vote with the president.

Earlier, Reid had spoken strongly in support of the president’s request.

“Today, many Americans say that these atrocities are none of our business, that they’re not our concern,” the Nevada Democrat said of Assad’s alleged gassing of civilians on Aug. 21. “I disagree. Any time the powerful turn such weapons of terror and destruction against the powerless, it is our business.”

Others came down on the other side of the question.

“I will vote ‘no’ because of too much uncertainly about what comes next,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican. “After Step A, what will be steps B, C, D and E?” he added, reflecting concerns that even the limited action Obama was contemplating could lead to a wider war. Missouri Republican Roy Blunt also announced his opposition.

In the House, one of two female Iraq war veterans in Congress announced opposition to military strikes.

“As a soldier, I understand that before taking any military action, our nation must have a clear tactical objective, a realistic strategy, the necessary resources to execute that strategy, including the support of the American people, and an exit plan,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii. She said Obama’s plan “fails to meet any of these criteria.”

Legislation approved in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week would give Obama a maximum of 90 days to carry out a military attack, and it includes a ban on combat operations on the ground in Syria. Both of those limitations were last-minute concessions to critics of a military option, and it was unclear whether Reid would seek additional changes to build support.

Despite the difficulty confronting Obama, an AP survey indicated the issue was hardly hopeless for the president, particularly in the Senate where Democrats maintain a majority, and perhaps also in the Republican-controlled House.

The survey showed 23 Senate votes in favor of military authorization and 10 more leaning that way. Opponents totaled 20, with another 14 leaning in the same direction, with the remaining 33 senators undecided or publicly uncommitted. That created at least the possibility of the 60-vote majority that will be necessary to advance the bill.

In the House, there were fewer than a dozen declared in support and 150 opposed or leaning that way. But 201 lawmakers had yet to take a public position, more than enough to swing the outcome either way.

The public opinion polling was daunting for the president and his team.

An Associated Press poll showed that 61 percent of those surveyed want Congress to vote against authorization of U.S. military strikes in Syria and 26 percent want lawmakers to support such an action, with the remainder undecided.

Adding to the uncertainty of the debate in Congress was a flurry of diplomatic activity that offered a potential way of achieving U. S. aims without military action.

Reacting quickly to a comment made by Secretary of State John Kerry in London, Russia called on Damascus to surrender control of its stockpile of chemical weapons and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said he welcomed the proposal.

At the White House, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, said the administration will “take a hard look at” the proposal. “We’re going to talk to the Russians about it,” he said noting pointedly that it comes in the context of threatened U.S. military action. “So it’s even more important that we don’t take the pressure off,” he said, urging Congress to give Obama the authority he seeks.

Other officials sought to tamp down any suggestion that Kerry was making an orchestrated effort with Russia to avoid the strikes.

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