Decision on Syria presents glimpse of democracy in action

Given a chance to air concerns before military strike, crowds turn out in Connecticut, across country

A crowd packed into the West Hartford, Conn., town hall, where Rep. John Larson listened to constituents' concerns over military action in Syria.
Michael Tracey

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. – On a muggy Labor Day afternoon, the West Hartford, Conn., town hall building overflowed with residents of the state's First Congressional District.

In the wake of President Barack Obama’s declaration Saturday that he would seek authorization from Congress before initiating a military strike against Syria in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people, Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., called a "community forum" on the matter.

Other lawmakers across the country, presented with the chance to chime in before a strike, have conducted or scheduled similar meetings this week before Congress returns from a monthlong recess next Monday.

Hundreds of people clamored for open spots at Larson’s West Hartford gathering, spilling out into the adjoining hallway. Once the room reached capacity, a police officer blocked eager constituents from entering the meeting, which had been announced with just two days’ notice.

Inside, burly men clad in military garb sat beside diminutive women wearing hijabs. People sat on the floor, leaned against walls and handed one another literature in hopes of changing minds or engendering support for their viewpoints.

"I intuitively felt that we were going to have a good turnout," Larson said afterward, "but I didn't expect this kind of a turnout."

The sight of citizens gathering to air concerns about potential military action before it occurs was surprising in light of recent history. Over the past several decades, presidents have progressively granted themselves greater unilateral control over the conduct of foreign policy. And though it remains unclear to what degree Obama regards the upcoming congressional resolution as binding on his authority to wage war -- Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested the administration will act irrespective of the outcome -- the Labor Day meeting in West Hartford did have a feel of democracy in action.

"You got pretty much a flavor of all the arguments," said Larson, who listened intently while standing for two and a half hours next to a projection screen displaying a map of Syria. "You got, from your democracy, what the people are thinking."

War fatigue

Larson stated from the outset that his goal was to listen, and he spoke mainly to thank the crowd for their attendance and contributions to the discussion.

As the meeting went on, sounds of chanting and drumbeats could be heard emanating from outside. A group of anti-Assad demonstrators, primarily of Syrian origin, had traveled to West Hartford from around the Northeast Corridor to agitate for American intervention.

"U.S. act now!" they cried, waving flags and hoisting gruesome photos of massacred civilians. "Save the children of Syria!"

I don't think we're going to make the situation any better.

Inside, the mood was markedly different. A handful of Syrian-Americans in attendance overwhelmingly favored military action, but roughly 80 percent of the remainder of the crowd voiced skepticism about the prospect of attacking yet another country in the Middle East after more than a decade of warfare in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

"We don't have any business being in the Middle East,” said Win Heimer of West Hartford. “Enough already."

Many of those opposed to U.S. action in Syria expressed a humanitarian concern over the use of chemical weapons but felt there was no reason to believe that attacking Syria would be effective in stopping it.

"I don't think we're going to make the situation any better," said Tom Farrell of West Hartford, adding that some form of nonmilitary humanitarian response would be preferable.

Others were more resolute in rejecting intervention on principle.

"How did we get here again?" one woman exclaimed into the microphone, earning a rousing round of applause from a majority in the room.

Mohammed Nihlawi, a chemist from Glastonbury, Conn., addressed the meeting with his young daughter draped over his shoulder. Originally from Damascus, near the site of the Aug. 21 chemical attack that U.S. officials said killed 1,429 civilians, Nihlawi has been especially anguished in recent days and felt obliged to attend.

Citing evidence that chemical weapons had been used prior to the Aug. 21 incident, he said, "If no action is taken, (Assad) will continue on this path. Desperate people do desperate things."

After the meeting, Nihlawi expanded on his remarks.

"I think if you plan properly," he said, cognizant of widespread doubts about the efficacy of any U.S. strike, "Assad can be stopped. But whether it happens or not, I appreciate what Congressman Larson has done here today. This is how democracy works."

In 2008, Larson was an early backer of then-Senator Obama's campaign for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, predicting Obama would exercise sound judgment when he found himself "in a room and you have to make a decision about life and death and war."

Defining a legacy?

If Obama is to be successful in gaining congressional backing for an attack on Syria, he will have to win over stalwart allies such as Larson, who acknowledged yesterday that administration officials are "facing skepticism" among House Democrats.

After the meeting, Larson seemed to lean toward a no vote on the current draft of the Authorization for Use of Military Force that has been put before Congress, for fear that it is "far too open-ended," but he left room for the possibility of some American involvement.

House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Monday expressed support for the president’s proposed action on Syria. A spokesperson for Larson said that while the situation is fluid, the congressman’s concerns haven’t changed.

In 2011, he voted for a resolution calling on Obama to end American involvement in the NATO bombing campaign in Libya.

Reflecting back on the Libya episode, Larson said, "I thought that the matter should have come before the United States Congress. I'm a product of Vietnam. I'm a product of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution."

But Larson said Obama's seemingly last-minute decision to appeal to Congress could define his legacy.

"I give him even more credit, then, for knowing the skepticism he faces," Larson said, confident that his 2008 prediction about Obama's judgment had been borne out, "knowing that he's got to take this issue to the American people."

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