The ‘Strange Majority’ Against Syrian Intervention

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

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

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.

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.

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 Senate will probably vote to authorize force.

“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 is an In These Times staff writer based in northeast D.C., covering Congress, corruption and politics in Washington. His reporting has appeared in The Huffington Post andThe American Prospect. He’s also the keyboard player for Betsy & The Bicycles, proud to be a former In These Times intern and recovering from his senior history thesis. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @colestangler.