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Syria debate scrambles U.S. politics

Human rights advocates join military hawks to favor a strike, and antiwar liberals ally with tea party Republicans to oppose one.

September 08, 2013|By Mark Z. Barabak
  • Nic Showalter, a Democrat living in Aurora, Colo., sees President Obama blocked by Republicans at every turn. But he resoundingly opposes the president's call for action in Syria.
Nic Showalter, a Democrat living in Aurora, Colo., sees President Obama… (Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles…)

AURORA, Colo. — Nic Showalter and Richard Rutledge view the world across a wide gulf.

Showalter, a Democrat, sees President Obama blocked at every turn by intransigent Republicans. Rutledge, a Republican, sees a swollen-headed president running roughshod over opponents.

For that reason, both are glad Obama has sought congressional approval before attacking Syria. Showalter thinks it will hold Republican lawmakers accountable. Rutledge says it's the way checks and balances ought to work.

The two agree on something else: Both resoundingly oppose the president's call for a military strike against the Syrian government for purportedly using chemical weapons on its people.

Yes, Showalter said, poison gas and the killing of civilians are terrible things. "But we can't be the world's policeman," the 49-year-old therapist said, pausing on an evening walk with his pug, Bodhi, around this sprawling Denver suburb. Look at all the good the United States has done overseas, he said. "People hate us anyway. Especially in the Middle East."

Rutledge, a 65-year-old engineer who served as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam, agreed. "If we start to impose international law, we should be part of the process but not the authority," he said, hours after Showalter passed by. "We've been policing the world, we've been helping out, doing great things, and we're still hated for it."

In an era of stark polarization, when debate tends to fall into the same well-worn grooves, Syria has scrambled the usual political equation.

In an odd-fellows alliance, Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner stands with Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, supporting the president. Human rights advocates align with GOP hawks, favoring a military strike. Antiwar liberals have joined with tea party Republicans, opposing intervention in Syria's 21/2-year civil war.

(The lines have been more predictable in the early positioning for the 2016 presidential race. Republicans eyeing a White House run, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, have announced their opposition to a military strike. On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and, of course, Vice President Joe Biden have supported the president.)

Public opinion is running strongly against U.S. action, with opposition increasing as the debate wears on. That heightens the already considerable stakes when Obama makes his case to the country Tuesday night in a speech from the Oval Office.

Among those who remain unconvinced is Aurora's congressman, Rep. Mike Coffman, a third-term Republican who is a rarity this election cycle: He is one of just a handful of House lawmakers nationwide whose 2014 reelection bid is too close to call. That owes in good part to his district, which curls like a distended question mark around the Mile High City.

It is new territory for Coffman, due to redistricting, and quite different from the conservative stronghold he once represented. There, Coffman was comfortable alluding to the president's supposed foreign pedigree. Here, registration is almost evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters.

Coffman has moderated his stance somewhat, most notably on immigration. (The district has a substantial and growing Latino population.) In the last few weeks, he has also shifted on the issue of Syria. After initially supporting a limited strike, he has declared himself undecided.

"I'm looking forward to the classified briefings that I have scheduled for Monday and Tuesday to ask the hard questions about the evidence of who directed the chemical attacks, the probability of success of a limited strike, and the risk of escalating U.S. involvement," Coffman, a Gulf War veteran and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement provided by his spokesman.

Coffman's Democratic opponent, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, is also undecided. "What I'm wrestling with and what I think most Americans are wrestling with is how do you stand by in the face of this savagery? If the international community is unwilling to enforce the ban it placed on the use of chemical weapons, what role should the U.S. play and at what cost?" Romanoff said in an interview. "Those are the questions that I'm grappling with and those are the questions that I'd put to Congress."

Most here seem to have already made up their minds.

"I feel sorry for the people that died from poison gas," said Michael Smith, 62, a political independent who installs home alarms for a living. "But I see only bad things happening, no matter what we do.

"To tell the truth, I don't advocate it, but sometimes I have the feeling the area is just one big snake pit," he said of the Middle East, "and the only way you're going to fix it is to destroy the whole damn thing and start over."

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