Last week, it seemed like the president was speeding toward a military conflict with Syria when he put on the brakes and decided to ask Congress for authorization. Then, as the vote loomed, Russia interceded with a last-minute offer to collaborate on a diplomatic solution. In a speech on Tuesday night, President Obama asked Congress to delay its vote.
In an exclusive interview with The Santa Barbara Independent after the speech, Congressmember Lois Capps, who represents Santa Barbara, said she was happy the vote was delayed because she was “still undecided.” “Is a military strike going to make things better or worse — for the region, for our national security?” Capps asked. That is the key question that needs to be definitively answered before she makes up her mind. The fact that the opinions currently are so divergent, said Capps, “indicates how conflicted this area is, how tough these issues are, and how important it is for us as a nation to be very measured in our response.”
Capps, whose most defining vote may be the one she cast in opposition to the Iraq War, said that Syria has some similarities but also “many differences.” Both are geographically similar, and they are both threats to Israel, she said. Both are also ruled by ruthless dictators willing to “kill their own people to secure their power.” On the other hand, she said, we know for a fact that chemical weapons were used in Syria whereas weapons of mass destruction were never found in Iraq. Also, she said, the president is arguing for a “limited strike” and not regime change.
Even so, Capps’s constituents — over 3,000 of whom have contacted her — are overwhelmingly opposed to a military intervention in Syria. Some of them were waving signs at drivers on State Street Monday evening in front of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. One of the participants at the vigil, replicated in 75 cities across the country, was retired UCSB sociology professor and longtime activist Dick Flacks. He said it would be “unprecedented for the U.S. to launch a unilateral act of war” before pontificating on a tale of two Obamas. The “imperial president,” he said, had to back up his threat to punish the use of chemical weapons. The president showed the opposite tendency, however, Flacks opined, when he decided to ask the American people via Congress.
In his speech, Obama made the case for military action. “My fellow Americans,” he said, “for nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements. It has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world’s a better place because we have borne them.”
If a vote had been taken by Congress, the indications are that force would not have been authorized. Capps said she understands that after two foreign wars in the past decade, Congress and the public are weary of the burden. “Just think of Santa Maria bearing its own casualty of war just a few days ago,” she said, referring to Army Specialist Kenneth Alvarez, 23, who was killed by an explosive device in Afghanistan on August 23.
While Obama said there would be no open-ended commitment as there was in Iraq or Afghanistan, the failure to respond to the use of chemical weapons would embolden others in the future. “And that is why,” he said, “after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.”
Capps, who would have liked to hear the president pledge humanitarian aid, said she agreed our national interests were bound up with Syria and the Middle East, but she has not made up her mind on whether airstrikes are necessary, indicating that she would prefer a diplomatic solution. “If [our deliberations over Syria] in any way leave us with a blueprint for ways of resolving conflict that don’t lead to war, then this [process] will not have been a waste,” she said.