published Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

Chattanooga area gives resounding 'no' on Syria attack

President Barack Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013.
President Barack Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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WHERE THEY STAND

How do local congressional leaders feel about a strike on Syria?

Tennessee

• Sen. Bob Corker (R): For limited strike

• Sen. Lamar Alexander (R): Against

• Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R), 3rd District: Against

• Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R), 4th District: Against

Georgia

• Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R): "Generally supportive" of limited military action

• Sen. Johnny Isakson (R: Against

• Rep. Tom Graves (R): Against

CHATTANOOGA AREA MOOD

"[The U.S.] should just mind their own business. We don't have to baby-sit the world."

— Alex Turner, 20, Ooltewah, hookah bar employee

"I'm against war in general, but the government knows things I don't know. I really like the president, so I trust his judgment."

— Daisy Blanton, 69, Lookout Mountain, retired

"I think we should stay out of Syria. There are no 'white hats' over there, and the rebels are probably worse than the Assad regime."

— Don Henson

"It's a messed-up situation. I feel for those people, I truly do. But I don't think we should go in there."

— Kisha Gladden, 34, Alton Park, fast-food employee

"We have too many wars going on right now. We've got Afghanistan. We've got Iraq. We go to war with anybody else, but we can't take care of ourselves. We're in debt like crazy."

— Jesse Cox, 38, Chattanooga

As President Barack Obama faced the nation to justify a potential targeted strike against Syria, he also reached out to Congress to delay a vote authorizing the use of U.S. military action in hopes of pursing diplomacy.

The second option sounds much more appealing to Rossville, Ga. stylist Kristy Hodson.

"Anything other than an airstrike or trying to go in at this point is a great idea," Hodson, 31, said about the president's announcement Tuesday night. "You know innocent people are going to be killed."

Hodson is among dozens of Chattanooga-area residents polled by the Times Free Press who adamantly opposed even a limited military strike. As international discussions heat up, Americans remain widely skeptical of Syrian involvement.

In interviews, online polls and email exchanges asking how locals felt about the U.S. intervening in Syria's conflict, a vast majority of respondents from a wide range of socioeconomic and political backgrounds told reporters they were against it.

The reasons range from being sick of war, to a general distrust of Obama, to worry that intervention will cause more harm than good for everyone.

"The U.S. has absolutely no real reason to enter the conflict in Syria. If we do the consequences could be horrible. Our country is under no threat in any way," said Ellijay, Ga., insurance agent Robert Westmoreland.

"Al-Assad agreed to put his weapons under international control and watch. That's a step in the right direction," said 21-year-old Chattanooga activist Baris Gursakal. "Any sort of military action is not going to be helpful to the Syrian people. Diplomacy needs to stay the first option."

Just a handful of those questioned said they believed the U.S. could no longer stand idle as a regime that potentially gassed more than 1,000 of its own people remains in power.

"You do what you've got to do," said Andrew Kohls, a 29-year-old computer technician from Ooltewah. "We have to take matters into our own hands."

But others said that after a dozen weary years of military action following 9/11, the U.S. has no grounds to wage another battle in the Middle East.

Maggie Martin, 31, a former soldier who was deployed in the Iraq invasion in 2003 and who returned for a second tour in 2005, said she doesn't want to see more war destroy families.

"I don't know if I can say what most soldiers feel. It's not going to make us any safer," said Martin. "It's hard to understand why our leaders would want to use military action and call it some sort of humanitarian effort. As veterans, we can really see that contradiction -- and it's pretty appalling."

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., who announced Tuesday that he will vote against any military strike in Syria, said he has received more feedback about the issue than any other he's faced since taking office -- including immigration and health care reform.

"It's clear there's a mandate from the 3rd [Congressional] District to vote no," the Ooltewah congressman said in a phone interview from the Capitol. "It could be of the magnitude of 25 to 1, with close to 1,500 calls into the office."

Other local congressmen have reported high call volumes and similar ratios. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., said 793 constituents had contacted the Gordon County congressman on the issue, with all but 10 against authorizing military force.

The mood in the tri-state region reflects a national sentiment that looks more opposed to a strike on Syria than it was before any other international military strikes in the past 20 years, according to a recent Gallup poll.

That poll showed that 51 percent of Americans oppose U.S. military action in Syria.

In the past two decades, support was highest for intervening in Afghanistan and lowest for the 1999 conflict in Kosovo -- which Gallup said analysts have compared with a potential strike in Syria.

Poll
Can Syria be trusted to turn over its chemical weapons?

But a prospective Syria intervention appears to be even more unpopular than action in Kosovo was on the eve of the NATO airstrikes.

Other polls conducted in recent days have pegged American opposition at even higher levels. An Associated Press poll showed that 61 percent of Americans want Congress to vote against U.S. military strikes in Syria. Just 26 percent said they supported action. The rest were undecided.

TAKING POSITIONS

Heading back to the Capitol this week, most Tennessee and Georgia congressmen have scrambled to announce their positions on Syria strikes -- even as international debate swings to more diplomatic alternatives, namely eliminating Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapons.

Fleischmann said his decision Tuesday to vote against a strike boiled down to two questions:

"What is our goal, and what are the implications following military action?" he said in a statement. "Neither of these questions has been adequately answered by the administration. In fact, if anything my concerns have grown."

The congressman said in an interview that he believes the call for Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons is "a step in the right direction."

He also said America can "heighten its reputation" by finding a diplomatic alternative to military intervention -- a reflection of a shifting party attitude toward war under the Obama administration.

Following the president's speech Tuesday night, U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tennessee, released a statement saying that it was "rather unfortunate" the Obama administration had to "look to Russia to provide a solution for preventing an armed conflict."

"The best possible outcome for the situation in Syria is for [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad to surrender any chemical weapons in his possession to the international community," DesJarlais said. "As I have said from the beginning, it would be a grave mistake for the United States to unilaterally commit military forces in Syria's civil war. In this instance, a diplomatic approach is the correct approach."

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has helped craft the authorization for a maximum 90-day strike against Syria, is one of only a handful of Republican senators who have supported limited strikes against Syria.

"Over the past 24 hours, circumstances have obviously changed and that should be taken into account, but Senator Corker thinks it's very important that the threat of military force stays on the table, otherwise there will be no possibility for a diplomatic solution," said Corker Chief of Staff Todd Womack.

On Monday in Nashville, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander -- who is facing a contested 2014 GOP primary -- said he will vote "no" to Syria, citing "too much risk that the strike will do more harm than good."

Late Tuesday afternoon, there was not one committed "yes" vote for a military strike among the nine-member Tennessee delegation to the U.S. House.

Only the state's Democratic congressmen, U.S. Reps. Jim Cooper and Stephen Cohen, remained undecided on the matter.

In a statement, Cooper said he was "extremely leery" of U.S. military involvement in Syria and wouldn't decide his vote until seeing the specifics of the resolution. The congressman said he had received more than 1,000 calls and emails regarding the issue, and that he was "hearing from people on both sides."

In Georgia, Graves announced Monday that he, too, will vote against using military force in Syria, saying in a statement that the Obama administration did not have a "clear or convincing strategy" for U.S. strikes.

"I am also deeply concerned about the extent to which al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists are involved in the rebellion," he said.

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss has said he is waiting to see final language of the resolution before he decides whether he supports it, but like Corker, he has favored some kind of military action in Syria.

"We continue to hear from folks back home that they're very strongly opposed to the U.S. getting involved in this," Chambliss told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. "I give that fact consideration, but the fact is that people at home don't have the benefit ... of having these extensive classified intelligence briefings."

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., made an about-face. Isakson initially supported, but said Monday that he would vote against a strike. He said thousands of Georgians had contacted him in opposition.

For all the heavy rhetoric and political posturing, Vanderbilt political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer says he doubts whether the resolution as it is currently understood will even reach the floor for a vote if it doesn't have the votes to support it.

The fact that more Democrats than Republicans support action -- an obvious reversal from the Iraq war -- is certainly related to the fact that a Democratic president is proposing military measures, Oppenheimer said.

"Part of what's going on is underlying partisanship, just like Iraq under Bush, just like Kosovo under the Clinton administration," he said.

Oppenheimer says that there are still "too many balls in the air" to speculate how events could unfold in the next two weeks. The U.N. could come out with new reports, or lead an effort to disarm Syria. A whole range of alternate resolutions could be drafted in the meantime.

"It's dangerous as a member of Congress to pre-emptively stake your position, when it's not clear yet what they could be voting on," he said. "Some of these people have changed their votes in the last week or two. And they can change again."

Contract staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

about Mary Helen Miller...

Mary Helen Miller joined the staff at the Chattanooga Times Free Press as a multimedia reporter in 2013. She produces audio, video, and graphics for the Web, and occasionally writes stories. Before starting at the Times Free Press, Mary Helen worked as a radio reporter at WUTC, the NPR affiliate station in Chattanooga. She won an Edward R. Murrow award for a story she produced there about the anniversary of the 2011 tornadoes that hit ...

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