On Syria, Obama faces a skeptical public

Chris Cillizza breaks down the three things we learned from Tuesday's briefings and hearings on potential U.S. military action in Syria. (The Washington Post)

President Obama has turned the question of whether to strike Syria into an extraordinary national sales job — seeking to convince skeptics in Congress and among the public that military action would be worth the risk.

It does not seem to be selling well. That’s the takeaway from the most recent national polling and the response from voters nationwide.

“I don’t think it’s the right time and the right place for our country to make a unilateral strike,” Tom Farrell of West Hartford told Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.) at a special meeting that Larson called here on Labor Day.

Farrell said he asked himself if U.S. missiles would improve the situation in Syria. And he thought not. “We are not trying to help the Syrian people. We are trying to make a point,” he said.

This is the debate the president asked for. Normally, Tom Farrell of West Hartford would not have a role in a real-time decision to use American military force. Neither, for that matter, does his congressman.

Majority of Americans oppose missile strikes on Syria

Now, they do.

On Saturday, Obama asked for congressional approval to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons. By extension, he invited the American public into the decision as well, as lawmakers turned to their constituents for guidance and political cover.

What they’ve found — from conservative corners of Tennessee to this liberal, comfortable Connecticut suburb — is that many voters deeply oppose the idea of a strike.

In meetings with lawmakers, voters gamely tried to tackle the kind of problem usually reserved for situation rooms in Washington. Cops tried to apply the logic of police work to the situation in Syria. Teachers applied the lessons of classroom discipline. Regular people thought through the same ugly chains of cause and effect that presidential advisers had.

They wound up with the same bad options. Afterward, some decided that a strike was worth the cost. But many saw it the other way.

“The notion that we can just go in and strike — and get out quickly — just seems not borne out by our history,” said Margaret Levy, 68, a lawyer from West Hartford.

On Tuesday, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed significant opposition to a missile strike in Syria, underscoring the skepticism Obama’s sales pitch must overcome. In all, 59 percent of Americans oppose the idea. The proposal was opposed by a majority of Democrats and a majority of Republicans. Among political independents, two-thirds said no. Notably, Obama’s position on the matter appears not to be a factor driving support or opposition.

As of Sept. 4, lawmakers appear to be tentatively dividing into four camps over military action in Syria.

In some places, lawmakers didn’t even need to call meetings to hear voters’ thoughts about Syria. The opinions came to them.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) wrote on Twitter that constituents who had contacted his office had opposed intervention, 523 to 4. Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) said the count in his office was 75 to 0.

In Brownsville, Tex., Rep. Filemon Vela (D)stopped at a liquor store, looking for a bottle of Merlot.

“Here’s my take,” said Joe Gonzalez, 57, a store employee who cornered Vela in the aisles. It was a long take. Gonzalez worried that the price of oil would rise if a strike on Syria further unsettled the Middle East. He worried that the United States would not be acting with strong allies. He worried about France: “We only have support from France. But France is a small country.”

And besides, Gonzalez said, “those people have been fighting for thousands of years — Syrians, Egyptians, Libyans. They’re going to keep on fighting. It’s a religious war; why get involved?”

Vela listened. But he says he’s undecided about how to vote.

The issue also bubbled up, unbidden, at town hall meetings called to discuss other issues. Such as the farm bill. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) and Rep. Stephen Lee Fincher (R) had come to Trenton, Tenn., to talk to farmers about the legislation.

That agenda lasted for three questions.

Then: “What about Syria? What about Syria?” asked Buddy Sorrells, 58, whose 4,000-acre farm produces corn, cattle, soybeans and wheat.

“I’m skeptical” about the possible strikes, said Alexander, an establishment conservative who supported the Iraq war. There were nods of approval. Alexander laid out the chain of possible consequences. There could be retaliation against Israel. Which might bring retaliation from the United States. And where would it go from there? Alexander said he was tired of seeing Tennessee soldiers depart for Middle Eastern wars.

Afterward, Sorrells said he was unconvinced.

“They ought to do something,” he said. Any chemical attack meant a line had been crossed. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had to face consequences. “They ought to just go and assassinate Assad.”

Then Sorrells paused. Thinking. He realized his dilemma.

“But what do we get then” as the leader of Syria? “I don’t know the answer,” he said, finally.

More than 600 miles away in small-town Corning, Iowa, Rep. Tom Latham (R) was already leaning toward voting “no.” On Tuesday, in two meetings with constituents, he heard little to change his mind.

Questions in those meetings wandered widely — from Syria to Obamacare to queries about why teachers no longer teach cursive writing, and whether there is still gold in Fort Knox.

But along the way, several constituents shared their worries about Syria. Why is the United States seemingly taking on the task alone?

“I was of the opinion that the U.N. was supposed to settle these things,” said an older woman at the library in Corning. “What happened to the U.N.?”

“We need some friends there with us,” a man agreed.

In West Hartford on Monday, Larson had called a meeting to talk about Syria. Despite the short notice, more than 200 people showed up, filling the city council chamber and spilling into the halls.

The discussion lasted the allotted two hours and then some more. Many talked back from the audience, disagreeing without shouting. The meeting went on for so long that Larson warned that he couldn’t go much longer without a bathroom break: “I’m 65 years old and didn’t take my Flomax this morning. So I may have to step out momentarily.”

A number of people spoke in favor of military strikes. Some were natives of Syria who said that an attack might prevent more deaths there.

For others, the logic had as much to do with North Korea and Iran as with Syria.

“If we let ourselves not do anything at this point, we will have no credibility” if those countries use prohibited weapons, said Roger Bunker, 72, a retired lawyer from Bloomfield, Conn. Bunker allowed that the outcome of a strike on Syria was hard to predict.

But, he said, “I think we know what the consequences are if we don’t do anything. And that’s more gas.”

Some speakers — suddenly invited into one of the hardest problems in world politics — tried applying lessons from their lives. A retired cop, for instance, said he had found there were bad guys you could afford to leave alone and bad guys you couldn’t. Assad was the latter, he said: “I know there are situations when I can’t just walk away.”

John Minze, 38, a consultant from West Hartford, got to the microphone and tried to puzzle out the problem aloud. He said he opposes military action. But then, he had a thought. He asked Larson: What if, instead of shooting cruise missiles at Syria, the United States simply tried to kill Assad?

“Who takes over?” a man in the crowd asked.

“Well, that’s a problem,” Minze said, still at the mike. Thinking. He was at a loss again. “That’s why I’m against military intervention.”

After various people had spoken, Larson said he was proud of them for talking so thoughtfully about a difficult issue.

“Listen,” he said, “it’s a democracy.”

“Republic!” said somebody toward the front of the group.

This was highbrow heckling, but the person had a point. In a pure democracy, the people would decide. In this case, the job falls to their representatives.

In other words, the choice is up to Larson.

Kane reported from Trenton, Tenn. Emily Heil in Iowa and Ed O’Keefe in Washington contributed to this report.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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