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Area members of U.S. House cast wary eyes at president's plan for action against Syria

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 4, 2013 - The initial comments from several area members of the U.S. House illustrate President Barack Obama’s challenge as he seeks to win congressional approval for military action in Syria because of the government’s apparent use of chemical weapons against its citizens.

The Republicans aren’t yet convinced, and the Democrats are wary.

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, made clear the reason for caution: Her constituents are not thrilled with the idea.

Wagner first accused Obama of showing “no action, no leadership, only weakness in the region’’ since Syria erupted two years ago.

She then added, “During the last few days, I have received hundreds upon hundreds of phone calls and emails to my office in strong opposition to military action in Syria. I have been attending briefings, meeting with constituents and working with my colleagues in Congress, before returning to Washington for additional classified briefings and hearings. I do not believe the president or his administration have made clear and achievable goals to Congress or more importantly the American people for military action in Syria at this time.”

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, offered a short statement: "I have not yet reached a decision because I want to examine the evidence further and allow the full congressional debate to go forward."

Across the river in Illinois, U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, offered up more detailed reasons for his concern about possible military action in Syria.

Enyart attended classified briefing

Enyart, a retired general, had been among the members of Congress who received a classified briefing on Sunday from some federal national security personnel. He also recently had signed a letter along with over 120 other members of Congress from both parties urging the president to seek prior authorization for the use of military force in Syria.

Enyart apparently also has heard from wary constituents.

“After two costly and prolonged wars, there is very little tolerance for another U.S. military operation by the people of Southern Illinois or by my colleagues in Congress,” Enyart said. “If President Obama believes action is needed, he must lay out a convincing case to the American public first.”

Enyart added that “after listening to the national security professionals Sunday, there is no doubt in my mind that the Assad regime is responsible for atrocities that people of good conscience cannot ignore.”

Still, he added, “As a retired veteran and military commander, I know the costs of war very well. I want to know what the long-term goals of our involvement would be before our nation commits to any action, and I cannot support any scenario where our troops are on the ground in Syria.”

U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, offered even stronger sentiments. Like Wagner, he isn’t convinced about the need for the United States to get involved.

Shimkus recalls past actions in Iraq, Afghanistan

“This will be the third time a president has asked me to authorize the use of military force against another sovereign country,” Shimkus said. He cited his previous votes for intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

“No one knew or believed that we would still be in Afghanistan 12 years later,” he observed.  In the case of Iraq, Shimkus said, “The search for weapons of mass destruction came up empty, and cost our nation lives and money.”

This time, Shimkus said, he was appalled by the use of chemical weapons, which he said, “shows a disregard of the basic rights of man, the right to life.”

But Shimkus added that most of the international community has yet to weigh in. “These organizations cry for our help but are never willing to lead,” he said. “When the United States leads, they are the first to chastise the United States for being unilateral. If any of these would lead and ask for the United States to assist, we would have a different debate. But they will not.”

Limited military action, he said, will likely make things worse. “It creates another cause for grievance by the Arab world, and it risks this conflict spilling across the borders of our allies.

“Until I see evidence of a real threat against the United States or our allies or unless the international community reaches a consensus and leads,” Shimkus concluded, “I am not convinced that a limited strike against Syria at this time is warranted.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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