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McCaskill, Durbin hope for diplomatic solution on Syria, four Republicans oppose attack

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 10, 2013 - Within minutes after President Barack Obama concluded his TV address, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., declared that he "made an important case for why Syria’s use of chemical weapons has serious implications for America’s national security — and that a credible threat of military force can strengthen the chances of a diplomatic solution."

But McCaskill remained on the fence about possible U.S. military action to punish the Syrian government for using chemicals to kill more than 1,000 of its own people a few weeks ago. "I also continue to weigh the possible consequences of military action,'' the senator said, noting that "a possible diplomatic solution has emerged'' that could put Syria's weapons under UN control.

"Over the coming days, I will continue to engage with my colleagues, evaluate classified information, and monitor a situation which continues to evolve on a daily basis,'' she said.

What was notable was that as of late Tuesday, McCaskill was among only two members of Congress from Missouri or Illinois -- of either party -- to issue a statement in response to Obama's televised remarks.

The other was from a fellow Democrat, U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart of Belleville, a retired adjunct general in the Illinois National Guard. "I have heard very clearly the overwhelming voice of my constituents in the last 10 days against American military strikes in Syria," he said. "I’m glad it appears we can resolve the situation without the use of force, as I continued to have very serious reservations about the implications of military action on our part...."

Among his concerns, Enyart said, was that "air strikes may hamper ongoing U.S. action in Afghanistan and complicate our supply routes to the troops there."

(Update) Wednesday morning, two more Democrats weighed in.

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said, "We should exhaust every diplomatic effort to resolve this crisis. While I remain undecided regarding any future congressional authorization to use force, this much is certain. President Obama’s strong leadership has opened the door to a potential diplomatic achievement that could remove the threat of Syria’s chemical weapons without firing a shot, a remarkable outcome that we must make every effort to achieve."

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said, in part, "Nations around the world are working with the United States to craft a resolution for the United Nations to consider. I am hopeful that they will be successful. If that occurs, the president will have achieved his goal without the use of military force. I hope that we can solve this on a diplomatic basis, and we will stand down now in terms of any congressional effort until that effort in the United Nations has a chance to reach fruition.” (End of update)

GOP solid in opposition to Syrian attack

Four of Missouri's Republicans in Congress had made clear their stance before the president's speech. Regardless of what Obama was going to say, his words weren't going to sway them.

U.S. Reps. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, and Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, both issued statements late Monday saying they oppose any attack against Syria, although both decry that government’s apparent use of chemical weapons against its own civilians.

The two followed U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who was the first to declare his opposition to the president’s proposal.

Although Obama says he doesn’t need congressional approval, he has opted to ask for it anyway.

All three reaffirmed earlier criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy and his approach to Syria, where civil war has gone on for over two years.

Said Wagner: “After receiving classified briefings from the administration, I am even more convinced that the president has not made the case for military action in Syria. The president has no long-term plan, no exit strategy and continues to project weakness both at home and abroad. This administration still has no clear or achievable national security objectives. As a result, I simply cannot support military action in Syria, as it will only be a punitive strike that will cause more fomenting in the region.”

Luetkemeyer offer similar observations: “After attending the classified briefing and reviewing the relevant information and facts presented by administration officials, I do not believe the president has made the case for military intervention. At this time, I am not convinced that there is an imminent threat to our country and our national security interests. The majority of the people in the 3rd congressional district also have made it clear they oppose military intervention in Syria as well. After careful deliberation, I have reached the conclusion that I cannot support a resolution authorizing the use of American military force in Syria.”

Earlier Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Cape Girardeau, also indicated that he would not support U.S. military action in Syria.

"America’s goal in any war should be to win," said Smith. "To date, President Obama has not been able to adequately define what victory would look like in military conflict with Syria. The best picture painted by the Obama administration appears to be that of a stalemate. If the administration cannot define victory to the American people, to military leaders or to the troops who will be charged with striking Syria, then we should not use military force."

Blunt was more expansive, but his bottom line was the same.  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s “chemical attacks on his own people were abhorrent, and I join the president in condemning his actions,” the senator said. But, he added, “It is clear that the administration’s policies toward Syria have not worked. The refugee problem has destabilized the region, and the addition of outside radical groups increases the likelihood of long-term danger for Syrians and their neighbors.”

Blunt said, “During the first months of the insurgency, I believed that we could and should assist in establishing a safe zone for refugees and those challenging Assad. This is a position I publicly held as late as March of this year, but the longer these things are allowed to drag on in the Middle East, the harder they are to impact in a positive way.”

Blunt said he recognized that Obama’s plan calls for “a ‘shot across the bow’ and has said that Assad will stay in place while a political solution is sought, which stands in contrast to his statement more than two years ago that Assad must ‘step aside.’ “

“I’m not convinced that the president’s strategy lines up with the policy goals our country should have, or that the administration currently has realistic policy goals in Syria,” Blunt continued. “After careful consideration and a number of briefings on this topic, I believe this strategy and the unknown response it may provoke are the wrong thing to do, and I will not support the resolution the president has asked for.”

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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