This last week has heard the rusty old rattling of sabers from Washington, this time over Syrian government forces’ alleged use of chemical weapons. While the rest of the capital fumbles toward yet another fruitless bombing campaign in the Middle East, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, has been a consistent and welcome voice for restraint.
Last month a poll was conducted to gauge public support for possible intervention in Syria’s long-running civil war. Only 27 percent supported arming the anti-government forces there, and 61 percent said that attacking Syria would not be in the national interest. And yet, here we are. The allegations of chemical attacks by Bashir al-Assad’s forces didn’t do much to change minds: a more recent poll showed only 25 percent support for possible air strikes.
And yet there’s considerable support in Congress for the idea of getting involved in Syria. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bill to arm the Syrian rebels, and some members have recently expressed support for a bombing campaign.
Sen. Murphy was one of only three senators on the Foreign Relations committee to vote against the bill to arm Syria’s rebels, and later joined with Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, to sponsor a bill that would have required the president to seek Congressional approval before sending arms. “While I believe we should increase humanitarian aid in Syria,” Murphy said in an email to supporters in July, “I was proud to sponsor bipartisan legislation that would require President Obama to seek Congressional approval before sending arms to the rebels.”
He’s held this line since, saying in a statement on Aug. 27 that while “there was no longer any question” that Assad had used chemical weapons, “there is little chance that targeted air strikes would destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.” Any such airstrikes would not only be futile, said Murphy, they would “prompt a reaction from Assad” and potentially draw the U.S. into a protracted struggle.
This is the right stand to take. There’s very little that America and whichever allies we can bully into going with us can gain from a bombing campaign in Syria, especially when the objectives are so murky. President Obama has said that the goal is merely to send a message, not regime change or support for the rebel cause. Sadly, the message we’re sending would seem to be that regimes can kill their citizens as much they please, as long as chemical attacks aren’t involved.
There also are some significant differences in Syria from the Obama administration’s previous bombing campaign in Libya. First, unlike Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, Syria’s Assad has friends. Most notably, Syria’s dictator is propped up by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has steadfastly opposed any military intervention there by Western powers. Relations with Russia are tense at best these days, and it seems foolhardy to risk worsening things to try and achieve as nebulous an objective as “sending a message” about chemical attacks.
Second, there is no immediate threat to either Syrian rebels or American interests. The Libyan campaign began, theoretically, in order to protect the rebel capital of Benghazi from approaching government troops backed by the Libyan air force, and was designed to clear the way for the rebel counterattacks that eventually led to the fall of Tripoli. Syria currently stands at a stalemate, and will likely remain one after the West’s planes and drones come and go.
Murphy’s other point, and one he made on a recent MSNBC appearance, is that the president should come to Congress for a vote on military action. There is certainly no good reason why this shouldn’t happen, except for the possibility that the president wouldn’t win it. That’s what happened in the United Kingdom on Thursday when the House of Commons voted against military intervention, after which Prime Minister David Cameron removed any possibility of the U.K. joining U.S. forces in an attack. It’s entirely possible that consulting Congress would slow or even stop action in Syria, as bipartisan calls for consultation grow.
Murphy’s stance on Syria is both correct and consistent with his opposition to the Iraq war, which he rode to the House of Representatives in 2006, and is a refreshing change from his hawkish predecessor, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman. The White House, which seems increasingly convinced that its smothering combination of world policing, secrecy, and surveillance is the only thing keeping the world safe, should heed Murphy and a skeptical public. It’s time to back off.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.