Americans Show Sharp Divide On Intervention By Kris Maher, Arian Campo-Flores, Ben Kesling

Wall Street Journal
September 3, 2013
Pg. 7

By Kris Maher in Pittsburgh, Arian Campo-Flores in Miami and Ben Kesling in Naperville, Ill.

Lawmakers wrestling with how to vote on a potential U.S. military strike against Syria have another week to grapple with the discordant opinions of their constituents, as views on the subject divide families and cut across partisan lines.

Discussions over the Labor Day weekend with voters from Miami to Oakland, Calif., found some calling for immediate action, while others remained perplexed about the wisdom of military action. The voters included critics of President Barack Obama who supported his call to attack Syria over its alleged use of sarin gas, and longtime Obama backers who exhibited more caution and apprehension.

The interviews echo recent polls that show the American public is sharply divided over military action in Syria, and skeptical whether U.S. involvement falls within the national interest.

Typical of the national divide, Ed and Patty Davies, interviewed at a playground in Pittsburgh, found themselves on opposite sides this weekend — and taking unfamiliar stands on Mr. Obama.

If the Syrian government has used chemical weapons, “Yes, we have to do something,” said Mr. Davies, 46 years old, a lieutenant in the Mount Lebanon, Pa., fire department who served as a medic in the 1990 Gulf War. He found himself siding with Mr. Obama, without ever having voted for him.

“I disagree,” said Ms. Davies, 42, a paramedic who calls herself a fervent Obama backer. “I think we only use force if it’s in our national-security interest.”

Voters such as Charles Owens, 74, who sat along a Labor Day parade route with his wife, Joyce, in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Ill., remain doubtful about the merits of a targeted bombing in Syria. “What does it do?” he asked. “Blow up a few buildings, maybe kill some civilians?. . .This is a Syrian conflict.”

Rep. Bill Foster, a Democratic congressman who represents the area, said he met many constituents over the weekend seeking information. “They mostly ask me questions rather than have fully formed opinions,” said Mr. Foster, who flew to Washington on Sunday for a classified briefing on Syria and said the U.S. has to “show the world that there’s a price to pay” for using chemical weapons. Mr. Foster said he is leaning toward voting for the resolution, though he said he has some reservations.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return from recess on Sept. 9, and congressional leaders have said both chambers would vote on the resolution that week.

Bill Rickert and his wife, Deb, were eager to talk to Mr. Foster about the vote. With two sons in the Army, “We have skin in the game,” said Mr. Rickert, 54, adding the U.S. needs to have a plan for what to do after any military action. “I’m appalled that Congress hasn’t been called back” from recess for the vote, he said.

In the liberal East Bay area around Oakland, Calif., moral indignation against the Syrian gas attack was tinged with concerns about the efficacy of a U.S. military strike.

“I don’t think there’s any military interest, but there’s a moral interest,” said Fifi Goodfellow, 62, walking in a crowded park along Lake Merritt, near downtown Oakland. “We can’t just watch people being gassed, especially innocent people.”

At Miami’s Cafe Versailles, many patrons didn’t hesitate in backing a prompt U.S. intervention. The restaurant sits in a district represented by Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who has called for a swift vote, though she hasn’t decided on which side she will come down.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “is a criminal, worse than Gadhafi,” the deposed Libyan leader, said Francisco Cortina, 78, an independent who tends to vote Republican. Mr. Assad’s actions are tantamount to “genocide,” Mr. Cortina said as he stood outside the restaurant’s sidewalk cafe. Yet Mr. Cortina said he considers the president’s handling of the matter inept. In his view, consulting Congress was unnecessary and makes Mr. Obama look weak and indecisive. “He’s looking for a way to wash his hands of the issue,” Mr. Cortina said.

Mr. Obama was prepared to order a limited strike on Syria without congressional authorization, but reversed course Saturday, saying he would seek Congress’s approval.

For Raul Fernandez, a 45-year-old Democrat, the case for intervention was clear. “The president drew a red line, and they crossed it,” he said. “He can’t break his word.”

William Harless in Oakland, Calif., contributed to this article.

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