The ‘Strange Majority’ Against Syrian Intervention

A coalition of anti-war progressives and Republicans could stop the U.S. from going to war.

Cole Stangler September 4, 2013

Rep. Alan Grayson (D.-Fla) has taken the lead in organizing opposition to war on the Democratic side. (Cliff / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Fol­low­ing Saturday’s sur­prise announce­ment by Pres­i­dent Oba­ma that he intends to seek con­gres­sion­al autho­riza­tion for a pos­si­ble mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Syr­ia, hawk­ish voic­es in the White House, Defense Depart­ment and the State Depart­ment have been pres­sur­ing mem­bers of Con­gress to autho­rize mil­i­tary force.

Defeating a resolution in the House is complicated by the fact that the interventionist camp could change the bill’s language in order to earn as much support as possible.

Sec­re­tary of State John Ker­ry has under­scored that the Pres­i­dent does not view the con­gres­sion­al vote, which will like­ly take place short­ly after Con­gress returns from recess next Mon­day, as bind­ing. But a no” vote could make an inter­ven­tion polit­i­cal­ly dif­fi­cult. Sev­er­al polls have already indi­cat­ed the Amer­i­can pub­lic remains deeply skep­ti­cal of U.S. intervention.

In spite of that pub­lic oppo­si­tion, the admin­is­tra­tion has earned the sup­port of top law­mak­ers in both par­ties. Minor­i­ty Leader Nan­cy Pelosi (D‑Calif.) and House Speak­er John Boehn­er (R‑Ohio) both sup­port inter­ven­tion in Syria.

War sup­port­ers have jus­ti­fied an inter­ven­tion on a num­ber of dif­fer­ent grounds. Some argue it would pro­tect Israeli inter­ests. Oth­ers say it will under­mine the devel­op­ment of an alleged Iran­ian nuclear pro­gram. Some hope it can curb the deep­en­ing human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis that has result­ed from the civ­il war in Syr­ia. And as the admin­is­tra­tion aims to con­vince both Con­gress and the gen­er­al pub­lic, it has tak­en its pro-mil­i­tary rhetoric to new lev­els. John Ker­ry told House Democ­rats in a con­fer­ence call that the Unit­ed States is fac­ing a Munich moment,” refer­ring to Europe’s fail­ure to stop the spread of Ger­man expan­sion in 1938. On more than one occa­sion, Ker­ry has also com­pared Syr­i­an Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler and Sad­dam Hussein.

Pro-war leg­is­la­tors have also dom­i­nat­ed both the high-pro­file hear­ings in the Sen­ate For­eign Rela­tions Com­mit­tee and, to a less­er extent, the equiv­a­lent House hear­ing. By con­trast, anti-war voic­es in Con­gress have been rel­a­tive­ly slow to emerge. Lib­er­tar­i­an Repub­li­cans like Justin Amash (R‑Mich.) and Jason Chaf­fetz (R‑Utah) are opposed to inter­ven­tion. So too are Michele Bach­mann (R‑Minn.), for­mer chair of the Tea Par­ty Cau­cus, and oth­ers eager to inflict a polit­i­cal defeat on Pres­i­dent Obama. 

As of Wednes­day night, the Wash­ing­ton Post esti­mat­ed that 79 rep­re­sen­ta­tives and 12 sen­a­tors are firm­ly against mil­i­tary action, while anoth­er 89 rep­re­sen­ta­tives and 9 sen­a­tors are lean­ing no.” These esti­mates indi­cate more oppo­nents than sup­port­ers, but the major­i­ty of mem­bers remain offi­cial­ly undecided.

As they go up against pres­sure from the White House, State Depart­ment, Defense Depart­ment and even lob­by­ists from the enor­mous­ly influ­en­tial Amer­i­can Israel Pub­lic Affairs Com­mit­tee (AIPAC), anti-war orga­ni­za­tions are try­ing to gen­er­ate more oppo­si­tion in Con­gress. They are direct­ing most of their efforts to lob­by­ing House mem­bers, work­ing under the assump­tion that the Democ­rats in the Sen­ate will prob­a­bly sup­port Oba­ma and are more like­ly to reach a com­pro­mise with Repub­li­cans that autho­rizes intervention.

It’s a mov­ing tar­get. We have a slim chance but we are putting every­thing into this fight,” says Judith LeBlanc, field direc­tor for Peace Action. She notes that defeat­ing a res­o­lu­tion in the House is com­pli­cat­ed by the fact that the inter­ven­tion­ist camp could change the bill’s lan­guage in order to earn as much sup­port as possible.

A let­ter to House Democ­rats on Wednes­day showed signs that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship may be doing just that, to try to siphon off no” votes. In the let­ter, Pelosi said she would con­vey Demo­c­ra­t­ic sug­ges­tions to the White House, such as adding lan­guage to pre­vent boots on the ground, to tie the autho­riza­tion more close­ly to the use of chem­i­cal weapons and to address con­cerns about an open-end­ed timetable.” Pelosi promised that pro­pos­als to address those con­cerns are forthcoming.

Oppo­nents to inter­ven­tion main­tain that such changes won’t be enough to swing the vote. I doubt it,” says Rep. Alan Grayson (D‑Fla.), when asked if alter­ing the bill’s lan­guage could even­tu­al­ly con­vince enough hes­i­tant mem­bers to sup­port it. Peo­ple are against it on prin­ci­ple. It has noth­ing to do with the spe­cif­ic word­ing of the autho­riza­tion. Peo­ple just think it’s not our prob­lem and we’re not going to do any good.”

Grayson has tak­en the lead in orga­niz­ing oppo­si­tion on the Demo­c­ra­t­ic side. He tells In These Times that his office has start­ed work­ing with Reps. Jim McDer­mott (D‑Wash.) and Rick Nolan (D‑Minn.) to orga­nize an ad-hoc whip­ping oper­a­tion,” and he’s opti­mistic that the House will vote down any bill autho­riz­ing mil­i­tary force.

Becky Bond, the polit­i­cal direc­tor of CRE­DO Mobile, which orga­nized a peti­tion with more than 175,000 sig­na­tures urg­ing Con­gress to vote against using mil­i­tary force in Syr­ia, agrees.

I don’t think they can water it down to the point where it’s going to stop this emerg­ing oppo­si­tion on both the Right and Left,” says Bond, who believes that a dif­fer­ent­ly word­ed res­o­lu­tion might sway some mem­bers but not change the out­come of the vote.

What­ev­er kind of lan­guage ulti­mate­ly emerges in the autho­riza­tion bill that the House votes on, anti-war groups like CODE­PINK, Pro­gres­sive Democ­rats of Amer­i­ca (PDA), MoveOn and the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies are still strong­ly push­ing for a no” vote. They’re lob­by­ing mem­bers of Con­gress, orga­niz­ing dme­on­stra­tions, and urg­ing sup­port­ers to call their rep­re­sen­ta­tives to voice their concerns.

But while there may be a gen­er­al reluc­tance in the House to sup­port an inter­ven­tion, some of these left-lean­ing groups are still hav­ing dif­fi­cul­ty get­ting their lib­er­al allies in Con­gress to oppose the war. As PDA’s Nation­al Direc­tor Tim Car­pen­ter put it on a con­fer­ence call with PDA activists on Wednes­day, Many of our friends and allies are mov­ing in the wrong direction.”

Per­haps the most notable pro-war pro­gres­sive is Rep. Kei­th Elli­son (D‑Minn.), co-chair of the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus (CPC), which remains divid­ed on the ques­tion. While I have deep con­cerns about mil­i­tary action of any kind, the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty must respond when chem­i­cal weapons are used against inno­cent civil­ians,” Elli­son said in a state­ment.

The oth­er CPC co-chair, Rep. Raúl Gri­jal­va (D‑Ariz.), is opposed to inter­ven­tion. As a result of their dif­fer­ing views, the cau­cus will most like­ly not be urg­ing its 70-plus mem­bers to vote one way or the oth­er on an even­tu­al resolution.

There’s no ques­tion it will have an impact on the way this vote final­ly comes down,” LeBlanc says of the CPC’s split. The term pro­gres­sive’ means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. From Peace Action’s van­tage point, pro­gres­sive’ should also mean demil­i­ta­rized U.S. for­eign policy.”

The CPC’s lack of uni­ty on Syr­ia rais­es the ques­tion of its effec­tive­ness as a vot­ing block—it is the largest ide­o­log­i­cal cau­cus in terms of mem­bers among Democ­rats but it does not always vote in a unit­ed fash­ion. A spokesper­son for Kei­th Elli­son did not respond to a request for comment.

Many oth­er lib­er­als are unde­cid­ed or sim­ply have not yet gone on the record.

It’s because they have to choose between the Pres­i­dent and their con­stituents,” says Grayson of the hes­i­ta­tion among Democ­rats. The President’s in favor of this and their con­stituents are against it.”

A senior Hill aide also says that some Demo­c­ra­t­ic mem­bers have been per­suad­ed by the President’s insis­tence that an oper­a­tion in Syr­ia will not include boots on the ground.” Anoth­er staffer says oth­er Democ­rats are sim­ply con­vinced by the human­i­tar­i­an arguments.

Still, a coali­tion of some anti-war Democ­rats and a larg­er group of Repub­li­cans could be enough to defeat the bill in the House. That would mark a vic­to­ry for inter­ven­tion oppo­nents who want to defeat the war res­o­lu­tion at all costs. But anti-war activist and author David Swan­son notes that the strange major­i­ty” that has emerged is not with­out its effects on pub­lic discourse.

When we have a gath­er­ing of peo­ple at an activist event against attack­ing Syr­ia, we have peo­ple who don’t want to do it because the Unit­ed States destroyed Iraq and we have peo­ple who don’t want to do it because the Iraqis are not grate­ful for what we did to Iraq. And so [they say] we shouldn’t go bomb the Syr­i­ans because they aren’t worth it, they aren’t good enough,” says Swan­son, cam­paign coor­di­na­tor at the online pro­gres­sive advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion Root­s­Ac­tion. You have anti-war argu­ments play­ing to people’s greed and you have pro-war argu­ments play­ing to people’s gen­eros­i­ty — we have to bomb the Syr­i­ans because we care about them’ — which dis­tort the facts.

It makes for an anti-war move­ment that isn’t very strong or last­ing because it’s an anti-war move­ment that only oppos­es cer­tain wars. We have a lot of work to do, and it’s in some ways hurt by the fact that the anti-war voic­es are Repub­li­can anti-war voic­es. They aren’t always anti-war for the right reasons.”

Cole Stan­gler writes about labor and the envi­ron­ment. His report­ing has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Repub­lic and Inter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Fol­low him @colestangler.
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