WASHINGTON – President Obama’s speech to the nation on Syria Tuesday did nothing to persuade local members of Congress that they should consider supporting a military strike aimed at punishing dictator Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons.
In fact, in the case of Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, it did just the opposite.
While praising the possible diplomatic solution that has led to the postponement of votes in Congress on a possible attack on Syria, Collins said Obama’s speech had convinced him to vote no on any resolution authorizing the use of force.
Collins had previously expressed deep skepticism about an attack while stopping short of opposing it, saying he wanted to hear the president’s argument for action first.
“His defense of limited military strikes was not convincing to me, not even close,” Collins said. “And I doubt that it was to any of the constituents who have bombarded us with phone calls and emails telling us that they don’t support the military strike.”
That being said, Collins said he was happy that the United States and Russia – one of Assad’s closest allies – planned to discuss a resolution whereby Syria would have to surrender its chemical weapons.
“On the positive side, I think we actually have a chance of getting rid of these weapons,” Collins said. “On the negative side, the president’s weakness has strengthened Russia and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, and frankly strengthened Assad.”
Collins gave all the credit for that move to Putin. After Secretary of State John F. Kerry responded to a question about the possibility of a chemical weapons surrender on Monday, “Putin swooped in like a master statesman and politician and said: well, here, I have a solution, President Obama. He effectively bailed Obama out so that he wouldn’t have to suffer an embarrassing loss in Congress.”
While acknowledging that Russia is America’s “real foe,” Collins continued to heap praise on the Russian leader.
“He’s been playing chess while our president was playing checkers,” Collins said, adding that the pending diplomatic solution “made Putin eligible for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
In contrast to Collins, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, remained focused mostly on Obama’s speech, saying that while he understood its purpose, the address did nothing to change his mind about military action.
“The president ramped up the talk of a military strike to get a peaceful solution, to create a space for negotiations,” said Higgins, a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee. “I totally get that. But I will never support a military strike on Syria.”
Higgins has been saying that for two weeks, ever since the Obama administration raised the possibility of retaliating for a Syrian attack on a neighborhood near Damascus on Aug. 21 that claimed at least 1,400 lives, including at least 400 children.
Once again on Tuesday, Higgins stressed that while Assad is a brutal, murderous dictator, the Syrian conflict is a civil war that only the Syrians can resolve. Iraq and Afghanistan have proved that American military might can’t resolve such sectarian conflicts in the Middle East and south Asia, he added.
At the same time, Higgins said he understood what Kerry was doing when, in what seemed like an offhanded way, he suggested a peaceful solution where Syria would agree to give up its chemical weapons stockpile.
“I think it was all orchestrated,” Higgins said. “When they saw that the votes were not there (in Congress), they needed an out and they found an out.”
If it’s an out, it seems to be one that’s popular in a Congress that didn’t seem close to ready to authorize a military strike.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who has said he would support a resolution authorizing a military strike on Syria so long as it was narrowly tailored and did not call for the use of U.S. ground troops, said after the speech that the move toward a diplomatic solution was the right one.
“There’s an overwhelming view in the Congress and the country that it would be far preferable if international law and a trusted family of nations could strip Syria of its chemical weapons, rather than the U.S. acting militarily, and we should let that process play out,” said Schumer, D-N.Y.
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand agreed.
“A credible diplomatic solution at the United Nations is the best possible outcome for the United States and the world community,” said Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who had talked tough on Syria while remaining undecided about whether to vote to sanction military action.”
Among local lawmakers, only Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, stopped short of praising the diplomatic efforts.
“We remain open to diplomatic alternatives, however, we must be careful in weighing future implications on those alternatives,” said Reed, who added that the speech did nothing to convince him that the United States should act militarily in Syria.
Like a growing number of Republicans, Reed has stressed the deep public opposition to a Syria strike.