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Syria Business: Leahy, Sanders and Welch Face a Tough Call on Air Strikes

Sanders expresses caution about whether to bomb Syria.


Published September 4, 2013 at 11:16 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

For months, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) appealed in vain for Congress to take an up-or-down vote on whether to further entangle the U.S. in Syria’s long-festering civil war.

Last weekend, for better or for worse, he got his wish.

Abandoned by the Brits and losing support at home, President Barack Obama reversed course Saturday and said he’d seek congressional approval before meeting Syrian nerve gas with American Tomahawk missiles. By forcing Congress to actually cast the vote Welch and his colleagues had demanded, Obama’s advisers explained, the president was calling their bluff and forcing them to own the strikes he’s pushing.

That is, if Congress doesn’t call Obama’s bluff and reject his plan altogether.

Either way, Welch and his two Vermont colleagues — Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — will be faced with a pair of unpalatable options when Congress reconvenes next week.

Should the three liberals, who all opposed invading Iraq in 2003, support another potentially endless, nearly go-it-alone incursion into a Middle Eastern country? Or should they abandon their president, ignore the televised images of Syrian children gassed by their own government and send a message to the world that the U.S. doesn’t stand behind its own “red line”?

In an interview with Seven Days Monday, Leahy sounded genuinely torn between — and pained by — the choices at hand. A human-rights warrior who’s fought to ban landmines and defund rogue military units, Leahy bemoaned “the pictures of these children and innocent people, dead from [chemical weapons].”

But he also raised the specter of America’s seemingly inescapable engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, questioning whether “the law of unintended consequences” would inevitably expand what’s now being billed as a limited series of air strikes.

“I have no problem with the idea of stopping chemical weapons, but before I could vote for anything, I need a far better idea of where it stops,” he said.

Leahy’s short-term, tactical approach to this very real political dilemma has been to criticize as “too open-ended” the White House’s draft resolution authorizing force in Syria. But how will he vote if, as expected, the White House assents to a narrower resolution limiting the scope of a U.S. attack?

“I don’t know the answer to that — and I’m trying to be as honest as I can,” Leahy said.

If history is any guide, Leahy may be inclined to support a strike carried out by a president of his own party — one with whom the senior senator has closely allied himself.

Leahy voted against George H.W. Bush’s Gulf War in 1991 and against George W. Bush’s 2003 reinvasion of Iraq. But he backed Bill Clinton’s ill-fated humanitarian mission to Somalia in 1993 and Clinton’s NATO-led air strikes against Slobodan Milosevic’s troops in Kosovo in 1999.

Though the Senate never voted to authorize Obama’s NATO-led air strikes against Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi starting in March 2011, Leahy told Vermont Public Radio that month the U.S. “had no choice but to respond, especially after Gadhafi claimed he was going to have a cease fire and then set forward to actually slaughter his people.”

The one time Leahy sided with a president of the opposite party on a major war powers question? Three days after September 11, 2001, when the Senate voted 98-0 to declare a war on terror.

Sanders’ wartime voting record isn’t much different from Leahy’s, though he sounded a more skeptical note on Libya two years ago.

Roughly a week after that bombing campaign began, Sanders told Fox News that while Gadhafi was “a thug and a murderer,” Sanders was “not quite sure we need a third war” and hoped that “our military action in Libya will be ending very, very shortly.”

Two months later, Sanders reiterated to CNN his “reservations about our involvement in Libya” and said the U.S. was better off addressing its domestic problems than “getting involved in all kinds of wars abroad.”

Sanders was on vacation and unavailable for comment as Seven Days went to press. But in a written statement his staff released last weekend, the junior senator hinted that he’s leaning against supporting Obama’s plan to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The use of chemical weapons by the Assad dictatorship is inhumane and a violation of international law,” Sanders said in the statement. “However, at this point in time, I need to hear more from the president as to why he believes it is in the best interests of the United States to intervene in Syria’s bloody and complicated civil war.”

There’s some wiggle room in there, but not a lot.

As a relatively junior Democrat in the Republican-controlled House, Welch would seem to enjoy less influence over a matter of war than his two Vermont colleagues. But since visiting a Syrian refugee camp on the Turkish border last May, the Norwich Dem has been, by far, the most vocal member of the trio on the Syrian question.

Welch’s trip to the region came at a volatile time. Shortly before he arrived, Syrian rebels reported the small-scale use of chemical weapons in several cities. Days after he left, Israel launched limited air strikes against a military research center near Damascus. Meanwhile, the U.S. was preparing — or, perhaps, had already begun — to covertly arm and train the rebels.

But fearing that Obama could “Americanize what is a Syrian civil war,” Welch told Seven Days at the time that he was “skeptical” of “armchair general politicians here in D.C.” who sought further intervention.

“There’s no good option,” he said.

What if the U.S. confirmed that Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people? Would that, Seven Days asked, cross a “red line,” as Obama had put it the summer before?

“The president is in a bit of a political corner because of the words he used, but the ‘red line’ should be what’s in the national interest of the country,” Welch said at the time — and the politics of the president’s rhetoric were of far less consequence.

But if it turned out Assad really had deployed chemical weapons — would that change Welch’s mind?

“You’re getting too into the weeds, Paul, you really are. I mean, look, the reality is it’s appalling to use chemical weapons,” Welch continued. “It actually creates a whole new reality if there’s a wholesale use of chemical weapons. OK? It does. What that would mean in terms of what we had to do or what we’d be forced to do, we’d have to figure that out. But the absolutist journalist pushing me to be John McCain-like — I just don’t think it lends itself to that. This whole battle right now is much more political at this point than it is directed toward the national security question.”

It might’ve been then. But is it now — after the slaughter of as many as 1400 Syrians by sarin and possibly other nerve agents?

Since last spring, Welch’s advocacy on the question has focused mostly on a procedural matter, albeit an important one: Who should determine America’s role in Syria — Congress or the president?

At a June press conference at the Capitol, standing beside libertarian Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Welch proposed legislation that would block any military assistance or intervention in Syria without congressional approval.

The next month, after failing to insert the measure into a defense spending bill, Welch upbraided his colleagues on the House floor for declining to even debate the nation’s ongoing involvement in Syria.

“Are we going to be congressmen and women or are we going to be cowards?” he asked. “It is the coward’s path to avoid taking responsibility for a momentous decision that we know at this moment is upon us.”

His colleagues didn’t listen, but Obama eventually did.

Now faced with the momentous decision he called for, what path will Welch take?

He, too, was on vacation when Seven Days went to press, and a statement his office released over the weekend was even more vague than Sanders’. In it, Welch said he was “pleased” that Obama was finally seeking congressional approval. Beyond that, he committed only to being “an active participant in the forthcoming debate.”

Given his rhetoric in recent months about the pitfalls of “Americanizing” Syria’s civil war, you’d think his would be a lay-up “nay” vote. But Welch has only once been asked to authorize the use of force since he was elected in 2006 on an anti-Iraq War platform. That was in June 2011 when, unlike the Senate, the House staged an up-or-down vote on whether to retroactively authorize the Libyan bombardment.

Along with 122 others — nearly all fellow Dems — Welch voted in favor of his president’s war, while 295 Republicans and Democrats voted against it.

Welch’s reasons for intervening in another Arab conflict? For one thing, he argued in a floor speech, retroactively endorsing the Libyan strikes reasserted Congress’ power over the executive branch. Somehow.

What’s more, he said, the NATO campaign was designed to be “saving lives in Libya.”

“That mission is necessary to avert a humanitarian disaster,” Welch told his colleagues. “Two, the mission has broad international support — including from the Arab League. Three, the U.S. role is limited in scope. No boots on the ground.”

What happens when you apply those metrics to Syria?

Let’s take them in reverse order. Obama promised Tuesday that his plan “does not involve boots on the ground.” As for international support? Clearly there’s less of it for a Syrian operation than there was for Libya.

And what about that humanitarian disaster?

It’s simply impossible to argue that the humanitarian crisis in Syria, where the United Nations has estimated more than 100,000 people have perished, is any less severe than it was in Libya, where as many as 25,000 were killed — especially given Assad’s possession of and clear willingness to use chemical weapons to murder his own people.

If preventing a “slaughter” was a reason for Leahy to support intervention in Libya, and averting a “humanitarian disaster” was a reason for Welch to do the same, will the two feel boxed in by their own arguments come next week’s vote?

Maybe. But maybe not.

Perhaps they’ll summon their inner Emersons and rightly note, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Not to mention self-righteous political columnists, as Ralph Waldo surely meant to add.

Perhaps they’ll argue that Syria is simply not Libya — that it’s a far greater mess with a far less certain conclusion. About that they’d surely be right.

Whichever way the wind blows Vermont’s congressional trio, the stakes couldn’t be any higher. If they vote yes and drag the nation into the next Vietnam, they’ll pay the price. And if they vote no only to join their hapless president in watching more innocents lose their lives, they’ll surely regret that, too.

Pick your poison, gentlemen.

Disclosure: Paul Heintz worked as Peter Welch’s communications director from November 2008 to March 2011.