Split on Syria: Connecticut lawmakers disagree about use of air strikes

Washington — Congress is splitting into two camps — hawks and doves — on the question of whether the U.S. should launch air strikes against the Syrian government, and the Connecticut congressional delegation is mirroring that division.

The Obama administration is seeking international support for air strikes on Syria in light of the reported use of chemical weapons last week by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attacked his opponents. The White House said any action the U.S. considers would stop short of “regime change.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is one of the most vocal opponents of a proposed air strike, while Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s senior senator and also a Democrat, is urging swift military action “to send a message to Assad.”

To Murphy, an air strike on the Middle East nation, even if it targets only military assets, would make things worse for the United States and the Syrian people.

Murphy said an air strike is unlikely to hurt Assad, and may stir up anti-American sentiments in the region and provoke more repression by the Syrian government against its opponents.

Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview Wednesday that there’s danger of a “quagmire” in the Middle East that would involve U.S. forces and U.S. resources for years.

“I saw the pictures of the little kids killed by chemical weapons, and I understand why people want action,” he said. “But after 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s clear the U.S. isn’t very good at pulling strings in Middle East conflicts.”

Murphy said he believes the United States can rid the Syrian government of chemical weapons only by sending in ground troops, a move that would lead to a massive civil war and long-term U.S. involvement.

Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, disagrees.

Questioned on CNN Tuesday evening, Blumenthal said he thinks the United States should launch an air strike that is “targeted to high-value military assets and limited in its duration and scope.”

He is concerned about repercussions from an air strike, he said, “but [is] more concerned about repercussions for failing to respond to this violation of morality and international law.”

In a later interview, Blumenthal said, “There should definitely be more consultation with Congress” before an air strike occurs, even if there’s no time for a vote. He also said the administration should show proof that Assad’s government used chemical weapons before any strike on Syria. 

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman, who retired at the beginning of the year, continues to express his hawkish views on the Middle East. He joined 87 former lawmakers and policymakers in sending a letter to President Obama Tuesday that urged an attack on Syria.

“At a minimum, the United States, along with willing allies and partners, should use standoff weapons and airpower to target the Syrian dictatorship’s military units that were involved in the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons.  It should also provide vetted moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition with the military support required to identify and strike regime units armed with chemical weapons,” the letter says.

But to Reps. John Larson, D-1st District, Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, and a growing number of other lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the president should do nothing without consulting Congress.

“Before the United States commits troops on the ground or decides on the use of force in Syria the president needs to convene Congress and make the case to the American people,” Larson said in a statement.

Esty warned against “rushing to use military options.”

“Absent an imminent threat to the U.S. or our allies, I believe the president should consult Congress and seek authorization before military action is taken in the name of the American people,” she said.

By Wednesday evening, Connecticut’s other House members — Reps. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District; Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District; and Jim Himes, D-4th District — had not shared their views on how or whether the U.S. should react.

Obama consulted several congressional leaders Wednesday, but Congress can’t fully debate the issue at this point because it is on its August break and isn’t scheduled to return to Washington until Sept. 9.

A group of House Republicans asked House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Wednesday to call the House of Representatives back into session for a debate and vote on authorization of the strike under the War Powers Act.

Other lawmakers wrote to the president, asking him to use his authority to reconvene Congress.

For decades, U.S. presidents have avoided having to get authorization from Congress under the War Powers Act for military action by not formally declaring war against a hostile nation. The last time the United States declared war was during World War II.

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