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Government, Politics & Issues

Blunt, McCaskill, Durbin reflect conflicted congressional approach to Syria

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 30, 2013 - While decrying the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Missouri’s two members of the U.S. Senate – Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Roy Blunt – have offered up wary, and somewhat conflicted, statements about how the United States should respond.

The two senators’ views are key since both sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Also weighing in Saturday was U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who sits on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee as well as the defense subcommittee of the powerful Appropriation Committee. He, too, offered measured observations.

Meanwhile, area members of the U.S. House in both states generally have said nothing – which in itself indicates a congressional dilemma. Most polls have shown little public support for any major U.S. response in Syria, and this month’s congressional recess appeared to see no groundswell of public demand for the members of Congress to take a stand.

On Saturday, for example, Blunt and Durbin were the only senators in the bi-state region to offer reactions to President Barack Obama's decision earlier in the day to seek congressional approval before taking any military action in Syria.

Blunt offered a mixed reaction, saying the president had chosen the right decision -- but took way too long to make it. “After weeks of claiming he could and would make this decision on his own, the president's announcement today marks an astonishing change of course," Blunt said. "While congressional approval is the best course of action and the right thing to do, it would have been the right course of action months ago.”

His criticism was in line with his concerns made earlier in the week.

“It’s clear the administration’s policies have not worked,” Blunt had said. “The president is the one who drew the so-called red line. And if the response isn’t adequate, we run the risk of sending the wrong message to the region – particularly to Iran. Troops on the ground would be a mistake, and measures that achieve no real results would also be a mistake.”

Durbin, who has long been close to Obama, was more supportive. “The president gave a powerful and historic speech this afternoon, challenging Congress and the American people to begin a debate about how to respond to the atrocities in Syria," he said. "As we decide what, if anything, we will do as nation to respond, the president has called for a national conversation and for Congress to approve any use of force. That is the right first step.”

Durbin reaffirmed the uniform condemnation of the Syrian government's apparent use of chemical weapons. “What has happened in Syria is a moral outrage," he said. "Syrian President Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people, including hundreds of children. The civilized world must now decide how to respond.”

Ghosts of Iraq, Afghanistan loom

Durbin then brought up the fact that the American public are wary.

“In my conversations and briefings over the last few days, one thing has been made clear: No U.S. troops will be committed to fight in Syria," Durbin said. "We have ended the war in Iraq and are winding down the war in Afghanistan – the longest war in our nation’s history. The cost of human lives and treasure to our country over the last 12 years of war has been overwhelming. If we can do something to discourage Assad and others like him from using chemical weapons without engaging in a war and without making a long-term military commitment of the United States, I’m open to that debate.”

On Friday, the president had laid out the international dilemma: "A lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it.”

McCaskill’s spokesman was sticking by the office's statement of a few days ago, which made note of the United States’ troubled interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Claire believes that the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against its own people crosses a line that endangers all nations, and that it’s appropriate for the United States, in conjunction with our allies, to respond in a manner that is deliberate and proportional,” the spokesman said.

“But if there’s one lesson we’ve learned over the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that we must proceed with caution. Claire believes that the situation in Syria is complex, and wants to ensure that all future decisions are made with a clear understanding of our national security interests, to avoid becoming entangled in another prolonged and costly military engagement.”

Comments reflect U.S. dilemma

Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University, said their observations echo the Washington dilemma, particularly since the British Parliament rejected the prime minister's bid to join in a military retaliation.

"I think that was a major blow to the White House,'' said Warren, noting that the United Nations and the Arab coalition are all opposing a military response.

"The history of the United States going it alone hasn't been good,'' Warren said.

As a result, he's not suprised by the senators' comments. "I think they're reflecting one of these 'I don't know what to do' situations,'' the professor concluded.

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