Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a town hall meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sunday.
When President Barack Obama outlined a new strategy last week to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Vermont's Senate delegation appeared to offer their full-throated support.
While Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) emphasized the need to act in concert with other nations and warned against the deployment of ground troops in the region, both said in written statements last Wednesday that they backed Obama's two-pronged strategy.
"He has authorized air strikes against ISIS and further support for Syrian rebels opposing ISIS, many of whom have been targeted by the cruel regime of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad," Leahy said in his statement. "I support the President because I believe that ISIS must be stopped, that U.S. leadership is urgently required, and that he has no intention of allowing the United States to become entangled in another large-scale war in the Middle East."
Calling ISIS a "brutal and dangerous organization that must be defeated," Sanders said in his own statement that the U.S. must be joined in its efforts by "the international community" and "the people of Iraq and Syria."
"U.S. ground troops should not be sent back into combat," Sanders continued. "I support the president's airstrike campaign and help for the Syrian opposition."
But when the Senate voted Thursday night on whether to authorize the U.S. to train Syrian rebels, Leahy and Sanders joined eight liberal Democrats and 12 conservative Republicans in opposing the measure, which was attached to a larger spending bill. The vote was 78 to 22 in favor.
Sanders, who is considering running for president, addressed the matter several times last weekend as he traveled in Wisconsin and Iowa. Speaking to mostly liberal audiences, Sanders emphasized his opposition to previous wars in Iraq and reiterated that any U.S. involvement must come as part of an international response and must avoid the deployment of ground troops.
But to the consternation of those who came to hear him speak, Sanders left the distinct impression that he supported Obama's strategy of training Syrian rebels.
"Do I think we should play a role in trying to rebuild the Iraqi army, reach out to some of the so-called Syrian moderates ... and give them our support? I do," he said Friday, addressing supporters at a fundraiser in Madison, Wis., by speakerphone. "It is an enormously complicated issue. I don't know that one can simply turn one's back on it."
By Wednesday, Sanders appeared to have changed his mind.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Sanders said he continued to believe that, "President Obama is absolutely right in his efforts to judiciously use air strikes, which at this point have shown some success." But arguing that "the kind of coalition we need has yet to come together," Sanders said he was wary of doing much else — including training Syrian rebels.
"It is a very complicated, difficult situation," Sanders said. "And, again, I want to applaud President Obama and Secretary [of State John] Kerry for trying to work through this. But this is what I worry about: I worry very much that supporting questionable groups in Syria — so-called moderates, who are outnumbered and outgunned by both ISIS and the Assad government — I worry very much that getting involved in that area could open the door to the United States once again being involved in a quagmire, being involved in perpetual warfare."
Asked why Sanders had changed his tune on training Syrian rebels, his spokesman, Michael Briggs, said, "I cannot explain it because he didn't switch his position."
"He said last week and again today that he believes an international coalition should take on ISIS," Briggs explained by email. "He said he appreciates the efforts by Secretary Kerry to pull together a coalition but that he is not convinced that has happened in a meaningful way."
But didn't he tell the Madison crowd that he supports training Syrian moderates?
"Supports it through a real international coalition," Briggs said.
In his own remarks on the Senate floor, Leahy also walked back his support Obama's plan.
For one thing, he argued, Congress should not act "in such a cursory manner" on a matter of such import — attaching the measure to a must-pass appropriations bill and providing no opportunity to amend it.
"We are authorizing U.S. military intervention in Syria's civil war — which for the past two years the administration has strongly advised against — and doing so by tacking that authority onto a short-term spending bill to keep the government operating," Leahy said in his remarks.
Though he said last week that he backed the president's plan, Leahy said Thursday that he does not believe it will work.
"As much as I believe the United States should support the fight against ISIS, and as much as I commend the president and Secretary Kerry for their efforts to build a coalition to that end, I am not convinced that the president's plan to intervene in Syria can succeed," he said. "There are too many unanswered questions about the composition, intentions, allegiances and capabilities of the so-called 'moderate' Syrian rebels who, like the Iraqi militias that openly admit to atrocities, are accountable to no one."
Furthermore, Leahy argued, there is "too little clarity" about the extent of proposed U.S. air strikes within Syria and "too little discussion" about whether American action might empower the Assad regime, Iran and Russia.
"I have thought hard about this," Leahy said. "It is far from black and white. I deeply respect the President. In the end, he may be right. But I worry about the slippery slope we may be starting down in the thick of a sectarian civil war."
He continued, "I am not prepared — on a stop-gap, short-term spending bill, containing authority drafted by the House of Representatives, in the waning hours of the day of adjournment, and with no opportunity for amendments — to endorse a policy that will involve spending hundreds of millions and almost certainly billions of dollars over multiple years to train and arm Syrian fighters who may or may not share our goals or values."
The third member of Vermont's congressional delegation, Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.), also opposed the Syrian resolution when it came before the House on Wednesday. But unlike Leahy and Sanders, Welch never offered support for Obama's plan. In his own statement after the president's speech last week, Welch said he was "skeptical about the effectiveness of air strikes in Syria" and "deeply concerned about the possible unintended consequences of propping up President Bashar al-Assad.