U.S. Rep. Jim Himes’ constituents wanted to know how much their opinions would weigh in his decision-making process on any resolution to take military action, no matter how limited, against Syria.
It’s a question that came up a few times and in a few different ways at Sunday’s town hall forum in Darien. At one point, a constituent in a standing-room-only crowd suggested that the congressman take an unofficial show of hands to see how many are for or against military action.
The majority of people in the room were against taking military action in Syria, but there were more than a handful in favor and about an equal amount of people who were still undecided.
Himes, who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee, remains skeptical about using military force and described the intelligence as something that’s “not water-tight.”
He said he’s been down to Washington twice to review the classified intelligence on the chemical attack of the Syrian people. He said there’s very convincing evidence that the attack was carried out by the Syrian government under the direction of President Bashar al-Assad.
“I have reviewed the classified intelligence on the raid. There is a very strong case that this was a raid — I shouldn’t use the word raid — was an attack undertaken by the Assad regime. I will also tell you that the intelligence is not water-tight.”
He said Congress was presented with “secondary intelligence analysis, which is strong, but is not water-tight.” He said he highlights that because he knows his constituents have not forgotten what happened in 2002-03 when an Iraqi defector told the CIA that Saddam Hussein had deployed mobile biological weapon labs to evade international detection for his weapons of mass destruction. The CIA director at the time classified the information as a “slam dunk,” Himes, who was not in Congress at the time, recalled.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will make his case for military action in Syria to the American people in a televised address. On Sunday, White House chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, appeared on all five major morning news shows to make the administration’s case in favor of an airstrike.
There is a resolution pending in the U.S. Senate that would authorize the president to use limited military action in Syria for a period of 60 days. Himes said a similar resolution has not been introduced yet in the House.
Himes said he has two concerns. The first is the lack of international backing the United States has received for military action. The other is that “we know very little and can know very little about what happens after a strike,” he said.
Because of his work on the Intelligence Committee, Himes said he’s aware of the various different factions that have been drawn into the Syrian rebellion, such as Hezbollah and al Qaeda.
“If we succeed in the president’s goals of degrading the ability of the regime to use these weapons, almost by definition there will be some degree of chaos and we don’t know what happens when that chaos is tamped down,” Himes said.
But his constituents pressed him on how much their opinion would matter.
He said the very first question he asks himself before a vote is “where are my constituents?”
He said “the second and third questions I ask are what are the facts that perhaps my constituents don’t see, or what else is out there I need to take into account.”
Himes said it’s rare for an issue to be overwhelming in one direction or another. He said most issues are 60/40 or 50/50. In order to vote against the will of a majority of his constituents, he said he would “need an overwhelming case to override those people that I represent,” Himes said.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal joined Himes for most of the forum on Sunday.
“For myself, whatever I’ve said in the past, I am still undecided. I am still listening and asking questions,” Blumenthal told the crowd of nearly 300 mostly Fairfield County residents. “I want to know how our national security is threatened or harmed and how it would be served by military action. I want to know what our objective is.”
Blumenthal continued: “How do we know what victory looks like? And how does military action specifically and precisely serve that military objective?”
While most of the crowd was fiercely against military action in Syria, there were a handful in favor. Among them was Ted Diamond and Ann Johnson-Lundberg.
Diamond, a World War II veteran, said he remembers when everybody said the United States should get involved when the world knew Adolf Hitler was doing “horrible things.”
“I think that today Assad crossed the line,” Diamond said. “We should be the moral policemen.”
Johnson-Lundberg, said she protested the wars in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, but is completely in favor of military action in Syria, a country she has visited.
“The problem is a political solution is not available until the balance of power is addressed,” Johnson-Lundberg said. “My concern is, if we do not deter the use of chemical weapons and then degrade his capacity, then there will never be an incentive for him to save his own skin by going to a peace table.”
But most of Himes’ constituents said they don’t trust the intelligence and others like Sandra Eagle of Stamford wondered “how is more violence going to help?”
Some of the younger members of the audience who communicate with Himes on Twitter wanted to know why it takes chemical weapons for the United States to express interest in military action against a country when many more civilians are being killed in other ways by their governments.
Another, Libby McCabe, pointed out that if Blumenthal is still looking for what will happen after military force is used, “it’s not going to happen.”
Himes said Blumenthal, who was gone by the time McCabe spoke, is very thoughtful and will take all the information he’s given into consideration. In addition, Himes pointed out that Blumenthal has two sons in military service.
Earlier in the forum, Blumenthal admitted that “military action has consequences and many of them are unpredictable.”
Anna McGovern, who was born and raised in Syria, said the people in Syria are “pawns right now in a proxy war between East and West.”
She said lawmakers must weigh the evidence like a jury and “if there’s any, any doubt then you must cast a ‘no’ vote.”