Vt. delegation undecided on action concerning Syria
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | September 05,2013
No member of Vermont’s three-person congressional delegation has yet committed himself on the issue of whether to approve military action in Syria. But a vote now expected to come by sometime next week will soon force each to come down publicly for or against U.S. involvement in another foreign conflict.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama’s request for speedy congressional backing of a military strike in Syria advanced Wednesday toward a showdown Senate vote.
The commander in chief also left open the possibility he would order retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack even if Congress withheld its approval.
Vermont Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernard Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch continue to mull President Barack Obama’s request for authorization to launch air strikes in Syria.
Welch said he has no doubt that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people and that the U.S. has “a legitimate rationale for the use of force to punish the Syrian state” for that breach of international law.
“But the question … is can you take an action that will be effective and make the situation better rather than worse,” Welch said.
Welch said he doesn’t think a military action exists to solve the political problem at the heart of a civil war that has reportedly claimed the lives of more than 500,000 Syrians.
On the one hand, he said, missile strikes might convey U.S. intolerance for “the horrors” of chemical warfare.
On the other, according to Welch, that military intervention might also worsen the lot of embattled Syrian civilians or imperil the national security interests Obama has said are at stake.
“There is, I think, a legitimate rationale and moral basis for the use of force when a state is using chemical weapons,” Welch said. “But there’s a very serious concern about the law of unintended consequences. And we have to ask, ‘Can the action that is taken be effective, and will it make the situation worse or better?’”
The specific action being proposed by Obama, according to Welch, has proven especially unsuccessful in the past.
“What the president is proposing militarily … is to use Tomahawk or cruise missiles, launched in all likelihood from ships from the Mediterranean,” Welch said. “And the history of effective stand-off missile attacks has been gloomy.”
Sanders said he, too, is undecided on whether to authorize military action, in part because the wording of the resolution will continue to evolve. The Senate on Tuesday narrowed the scope of the president’s initial request, limiting the time period for U.S. involvement to no more than 90 days and prohibiting the deployment of U.S. personnel to Syria.
“It is impossible to say how one will vote because we don’t know what the final resolution will look like,” Sanders said.
But the independent said he has grave concerns about the allocation of resources, both political and financial, to a foreign military operation that would deflect attention from pressing domestic issues.
From unemployment and wage stagnation to collapsing infrastructure and global warming, Sanders said “there are enormous problems facing a disappearing middle class and the millions of people who are struggling to keep their heads above water economically.”
“And I worry very much that with this rush into war, the very serious problems facing Vermonters and people all over this country … will be pushed aside,” Sanders said. “So there will be less discussion about creating jobs, less discussion about making college affordable, less discussion about protecting the social safety net of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.”
Sanders said he also wants to know who will be responsible for funding the military effort if and when Congress is to approve it. The war in Iraq, Sanders said, put enormous pressure on the federal budget, pressure being paid for now in the form of a sequester that has meant everything from diminished capacity for child development programs to cuts in programs for senior citizens.
“One of the things that I do know is our Republican friends do not want to ask wealthier individuals and corporations to pay more in taxes … and this could literally mean more kids being thrown out of Head Start or less Meals on Wheels for seniors,” Sanders said. “I think before we go any further, we need to know where the money is going to come from to pay for this.”
Leahy was unavailable for an interview Wednesday but has said in numerous news outlets this week that he has serious concerns about unilateral military action being undertaken by the U.S., and the slippery slope toward the kind of full-fledged military involvement that transpired in Iraq.
Welch said there’s no easy out for members of Congress and that people on either side of the fence ought to be mindful of the consequences of being wrong.
“There’s no safe haven for any member of Congress in asserting there is a clearly right decision that can be made,” Welch said. “Because the law of unintended consequences is going to apply in this case to both a yes vote and a no vote.”
In Washington, legislation backing the use of force against Assad’s government cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a 10-7 vote after it was stiffened at the last minute to include a pledge of support for “decisive changes to the present military balance of power” in Syria’s civil war. It also would rule out U.S. combat operations on the ground.
The measure is expected to reach the Senate floor next week, although the timing for a vote is uncertain. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky conservative with strong tea party ties, has threatened a filibuster.
The House also is reviewing Obama’s request, but its timetable is even less certain and the measure could face a rockier time there.
The administration blames Assad for a chemical weapons attack that took place on Aug. 21 and says more than 1,400 civilians died, including at least 400 children.
Other casualty estimates are lower, and the Syrian government denies responsibility, contending rebels fighting to topple the government were to blame.
The Senate panel’s vote marked the first formal response in Congress, four days after Obama unexpectedly put off an anticipated cruise missile strike against Syria last weekend and instead asked lawmakers to unite first behind such a plan.
In Stockholm, Sweden, where Obama was traveling on Wednesday, the White House praised the vote, and said it would continue to seek support for “a military response that is narrowly tailored to enforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, and sufficient to protect the national security interests of the United States of America.”
At a news conference earlier, Obama said, “I always preserve the right and responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security.”
In a challenge to lawmakers back home, he said Congress’ credibility was on the line, not his own, despite saying a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.