Syria: Inside the D.C. War

13 minute read
Michael Scherer; Alex Altman

Everywhere she goes these days, Nancy Pelosi hears the skepticism. It rains down on her at fundraisers from Boston to Albuquerque, among her fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill and back home in San Francisco, where the antiwar spirit of the 1960s still blankets the city like the summer fog. “I don’t run into a lot of people who say, ‘Bomb Assad,'” the House minority leader says of the military campaign President Obama has prepared against the Syrian regime. “Certainly plenty have said, ‘No. Thumbs down, thumbs down, thumbs down.'”

Pelosi says she even found herself surprised on Labor Day by her seventh grandchild, who confronted her with a question. “Yes on the war on Syria, or no on the war on Syria?” asked Thomas Vos, 5, as Pelosi bade farewell to catch a plane for another meeting at the White House on the U.S. response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. When politicians cite the strategic advice of their grandchildren, it typically signals a Hobson’s choice. This time was no different. “I think no war,” the boy told her.

The conversation that followed between Thomas and the House Democratic leader was as good a place to start as any, an opening volley in the national debate Obama has asked the country to undertake around dinner tables and watercoolers, in committee rooms and on the floor of the U.S. Congress. At issue are elemental questions about what kind of global role the U.S. will play in the coming decade and what behaviors by other nations are unacceptable. There are no easy answers. All options come with incalculable risks.

Convincing evidence indicates that a Syrian dictator, fearing for his regime’s survival, has turned chemical weapons on his people, killing more than a thousand so far, in violation of nearly century-old international norms. Now the American people, by way of their elected leaders, must decide: Should their military be in the business of punishing with missile strikes those who use weapons of mass destruction half a world away? Even if intervention fails to curb the practice–or, worse, further destabilizes the region? “If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?” the President asked on Aug. 31. “To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorists who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?”

For Pelosi, who in 2007 became the first female Speaker of the House by campaigning against the last war in the Middle East over weapons of mass destruction, the answer is to strike. She is doing all she can to persuade her colleagues to go along. “President Obama did not draw a red line. That was drawn by humanity decades ago,” Pelosi told TIME hours after speaking at the White House on Sept. 3 in favor of military action. “Who are we as a country? You know, we are the superpower.”

But in a nation weary of war, this view has been fading. A Pew Poll conducted over Labor Day weekend found that fewer than 1 in 3 Americans, including only 29% of Democrats, support air strikes against Syria. Republican voters are actually more likely to support the President, at 35%, though many Republican lawmakers feel differently.

Which means that in order to win congressional approval for missile strikes, Obama will have to turn to his own skeptical party for support. It will be an uphill battle, especially if Republican members of Congress abandon the effort en masse. But if Congress approves the resolution in the coming weeks, a large part of the credit will be due to Pelosi and the scores of reluctant Democrats she brings along. “She’s key,” confides an Administration official involved in the lobbying push. “Pelosi really carries some sway with the liberal members of the House.”

This choice comes as the old foreign policy divisions that defined the national landscape since the Iraq war–GOP hawk, Democratic dove–have been scrambled. Now Republican isolationists are ascendant, while other conservatives would pay a steep price in their home districts for supporting anything the President wants. “It’s not the kind of vote where you go up to somebody and say, ‘I really need you to vote for this,'” Pelosi explains. “This is a vote where you just present the information, the facts, the intelligence, the judgment that you have about what happens if you don’t do something, as well as what happens if you do.”

The Friday-Night Walk

Perhaps the most surprising part of the Syrian debate is that the nation is having it at all. Presidents have long had the prerogative to decide when and where to send the military for limited attacks of the sort planned for Syria, without prior approval from Congress or the American people. Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada. George H.W. Bush invaded Panama. Bill Clinton launched air strikes over the Balkans and fired cruise missiles at Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama already undertook the bombing of Libya and the toppling of its dictator without any approval from Congress.

But on the eve of what was an almost telegraphed strike on Syria, the President found himself standing alone. The British Parliament abandoned him. The Arab League could not commit. The United Nations faced Russian obstruction, and the U.S. Congress was unable to cobble together a cogent position, given the low enthusiasm of the American people.

All the President needed to do was say the word. Instead, he went for a walk. For 45 minutes on the muggy evening of Friday, Aug. 30, he strolled through the South Lawn of the White House, just out of view of the ubiquitous tourists gawking with iPhones held aloft from the National Mall. There he decided he did not want to launch this war alone.

One theory of Obama’s 11th-hour change was that he needed a way to avoid the conflict he had backed himself into. But senior White House advisers say that the decision was, in fact, a pivot Obama has mulled for some time. After 12 years of nonstop conflict–some inherited, some of his choosing–and a generation more of unilateral executive action, Obama wanted to return to an era in which the President and the Congress are equal partners. “He’s getting us off a permanent war footing,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney tells TIME.

In May, Obama delivered a speech to a military university in the capital that invoked the laws that “constrain the power of the President even during wartime.” Libya, he believed, should be the exception, not the rule, its timetable rushed by the prospect of an imminent massacre. “It’s important for us to get out of the habit of just saying, ‘Well, we’ll let the President kind of stretch the boundaries of his authority as far as he can,'” Obama said on Sept. 4 during a visit to Sweden. But if the gambit fails and Congress rejects his request, there could be a real cost for the President’s ability to deter with threats other defiant nations like Iran and North Korea. Obama has said he reserves the right to act against Syria even if Congress balks.

If Congress approves the action, the President will find some political cover, or at least some company, in case things go from bad to worse in Syria. His aides also argue that a united American front will set a clear precedent for building international consensus against the use or spread of weapons of mass destruction, a key goal of his presidency. “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something,” Obama said about the fight to contain the nuclear threat, shortly after taking office. “The world must stand together.”

As things now stand, Obama is likely to win backing for a bombing campaign from the Democratic-held Senate, which has already drafted a bipartisan resolution imposing limits on the length of an operation. But the Republican-controlled House will be trickier. While House Speaker John Boehner and his top lieutenant Eric Cantor support strikes to punish Assad, they expect the White House to “take the lead on any whipping effort,” says Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman. Translation: Obama is on his own. The House rank and file doesn’t just distrust the President. It has also begun to tally the costs of endless war. “What is the end goal within these countries?” asks Representative Trey Radel, a Florida Republican. “What have we accomplished with so many lives that have been lost?”

Obama’s aides are now in a furious sprint to woo wavering members. Progressive Democrats are leery of an open-ended conflict, and some are actively campaigning against a cause championed by a President from their own party. On a Labor Day briefing call for House Democrats, Representative Rick Nolan of Minnesota lectured Secretary of State John Kerry about the perils of another foreign quagmire, likening the Syrian conflict to Vietnam. “Have we forgotten the lessons of Southeast Asia?” Nolan demanded, according to an official familiar with the discussion.

But this is not Vietnam, as Kerry, who was wounded there, knows well. And Obama’s national-security officials are taking care to explain why it is more than a localized civil war. They argue that inaction would embolden regional enemies who pose a direct security threat to the U.S. “Iran is hoping you look the other way,” Kerry told a Senate panel on Sept. 3. “Hizballah is hoping isolationism will prevail.” AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby with huge clout among congressional Republicans, has cast U.S. intervention as vital to Israel’s security interests.

These arguments won’t settle the identity crises that both parties have been suffering from for a decade or more. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Republicans have typically preached a doctrine of muscular intervention to spread democracy, while dovish Democrats have warned against the perils of endless entanglements. But those lines have blurred. Now Democrats are warming to the merits of humanitarian intervention, while the GOP’s isolationist wing is growing, fed by economic turmoil, the rise of the Tea Party and a decade of grinding war. “This hasn’t seemed to break down on traditional lines on either side of the aisle,” says a House Democratic leadership aide.

Even if Pelosi can rally Democrats, the Republicans are likely to splinter deeply. “Conservative opposition to an intervention in Syria is symptomatic of something larger: political parties advancing a neoisolationist outlook when their party is out of the White House,” says Dan Senor, a neoconservative adviser to George W. Bush. But even if that outlook is merely a fad, the vote accelerates a clash that will reverberate through upcoming elections. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s silence on Syria–even in private high-level meetings–speaks volumes: however he weighs in, McConnell knows he will face blowback from Kentucky Tea Partyers in next year’s re-election bid. And the vote could pit some of the Republican Party’s hottest political stars, including Senators Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, against one another ahead of the 2016 presidential primary.

When the vote is taken, the GOP may divide into moderates who back the President, Obama haters who oppose him by reflex, anti-interventionists and a small group of Republicans who think Obama isn’t intervening enough. Senate candidate Liz Cheney, the daughter of Iraq-war architect Dick Cheney, has said on the campaign trail in Wyoming that she opposes a strike to punish the Assad government’s use of weapons of mass destruction. Her reason: the President has failed to develop a plan for intervention with defined goals.

All Bets Are Off

other than Obama himself, no politician got more mileage out of opposing the Iraq war than Pelosi. She won the Speaker’s gavel after Democrats swept the House in the midterm elections of 2006 and the following year became an early–if quiet–backer of the antiwar candidate with the funny name. She had long made the rush to war in Iraq her signature issue, both as party leader and member of the House Intelligence Committee. “I say flat out that unilateral use of force without first exhausting every diplomatic remedy and other remedies and making a case to the American people will be harmful to our war on terrorism,” she said in 2002, before voting against authorizing the use of force.

So it is ironic that some of those same arguments have now been borrowed by Democratic opponents, who believe that it is wrong for the U.S. to act without the United Nations and that involvement in a Syrian civil war will distract from more core U.S. interests. Pelosi rejects the comparison. “It does not represent any change in me,” she says of her decision. “With the Iraq war there was no there there. In Syria, there is a there there. And that’s what makes the difference.”

Just as she did when Obama’s health care bill seemed to falter in 2010, Pelosi has been pushing the White House to amp up its public relations campaign. She has urged fellow Democrats to read the classified intelligence, which she considers conclusive. She has also made clear that she is willing to adjust the wording of any authorization to win votes, including possible restrictions on sending troops to the country and timetables for an end to the bombing. However, her flexibility has limits. “There are some, I think, that are saying it should determine the number of strikes,” she says of the legislation. “That goes a little far.”

But the bigger issue is selling the public on the conflict. “This has to be taken to the people,” she says. “They have to be more aware, to know why a President who is winding down two wars, who knows the public is weary of war, would say I’m going to initiate a tailored, limited strike in Syria.”

That’s much harder to do, however, than to say. More than 100,000 people have already died in the Syrian conflict, with only a small fraction succumbing to chemical weapons. White House aides have said plainly that the U.S. mission in Syria is not to stop the slaughter or to end the civil war through military force. In the face of the horror, both Obama and Pelosi have tried to focus attention on the national-security interest of stopping chemical-weapons use. “If he shot them with bullets, what difference would it make?” asks Pelosi, referring to the residents of East Damascus who perished in the most recent chemical attack on Aug. 21. “Plenty. Because he used a chemical weapon, which is a threat.”

When her 5-year-old grandson asked if the children Bashar Assad killed were in America, Pelosi had to offer a different argument. “I said, ‘Well, no. But they’re children, wherever they are.'” It was an emotional plea long used by members of both parties to defend U.S. involvement in distant conflicts. Her argument is not with the child; it is with members of her own party on a question that has no good answers. Pelosi declined to hazard a bet on how it all turns out. “Let’s see,” she says, “how it goes.”

With reporting by Zeke J. Miller and Alex Rogers / Washington

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