Obama strains to win over public on Syria

Majority in U.S. hesitant to sign off on another Middle East adventure

The Washington Post

President Barack 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, Connecticut, told Democratic Rep. John Larson at a special meeting the lawmaker called there 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, Farrell does not have a role in a real-time decision to use American military force. Neither, for that matter, does his congressman.

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 have 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 independents, two-thirds said no. Notably, Obama’s position on the matter appears not to be a factor driving support or opposition.

In some places, lawmakers didn’t even need to call a meeting to hear voters’ thoughts about Syria. The opinions came to them. Maryland Republican Rep. Andy Harris wrote on Twitter that constituents who had contacted his office had opposed intervention, 523 to 4. Arkansas Republican Rep. Tim Griffin said the count in his office was 75 to 0.

In Brownsville, Texas, Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela just 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 U.S. would not be acting with strong allies. He worried about France: “We only have support from France. But France is a small country.”

The issue also bubbled up, unbidden, at town-hall meetings called to discuss other issues. Such as the farm bill. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander and Rep. Stephen Lee Fincher, both Republicans, had come to Trenton, Tennessee, to talk to farmers about the legislation. That agenda lasted for three questions. Then: “What about Syria? What about Syria?” asked Buddy Sorrells, 58.

“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 U.S. And where does 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 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 900 km away in the small town of Corning, Iowa, Rep. Tom Latham was already leaning toward voting “no.” On Tuesday, in two meetings with constituents, he heard little to change his mind. But along the way, several constituents shared their worries about Syria. Why is the U.S. 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.?”

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.

A number of people spoke in favor of military strikes. Some were natives of Syria who said that strikes 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, Connecticut. Bunker conceded 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.”