DNC’s Vice Chair’s Opposition Underscores Politics of Coming Syria Vote

Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii speaks as other House Democratic lawmakers look on. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

For U.S. House members, 2014 is an election year. The campaign season soon will kick into high gear. So it’s worth asking 14 months from Election Day: Who do Democratic House members need more, President Barack Obama or the Democratic National Committee?

In the current American political campaign climate, however, it’s a question that cannot be ignored as Obama this week will ramp up his efforts to sell Congress — especially Democrats — and the American populace to support his desired military strikes to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons.

After all, the DNC’s primary function is assisting Democratic political candidates during campaigns. Increasingly, the DNC’s biggest task is assisting candidates with fundraising — and, yes, even House campaigns are very expensive these days.

So it’s notable that a DNC vice chair, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, early Monday morning announced her “strong opposition to a U.S. military intervention in Syria.” Like other members, Gabbard returned to Washington last week to attend classified briefings about intelligence showing Assad had used chemical arms and the White House’s plans for limited military strikes.

“I am sickened and outraged by the carnage and loss of lives caused by the use of chemical weapons in Syria,” Gabbard said in a statement. “It is with gravity that I have carefully considered all the facts, arguments, and evidence and soberly weighed concerns regarding our national security and moral responsibility.

“As a result, I have come to the conclusion that a U.S. military strike against Syria would be a serious mistake,” Gabbard said. “I will therefore vote against a resolution that authorizes the use of military force in Syria. I will also strongly urge my colleagues to do the same.”

The Obama administration is battling what lawmakers, analysts and pundits are calling “Iraq fatigue,” a term that refers to a collective apprehension among lawmakers and citizens to get bogged down in another war like the U.S. misadventure in Iraq.

Gabbard is a decorated Iraq war veteran, and she alluded to Iraq-related worries in her statement.

“As a soldier, I understand that before taking any military action, our nation must have a clear tactical objective, a realistic strategy, the necessary resources to execute that strategy — including the support of the American people — and an exit plan,” she said. “The proposed military action against Syria fails to meet any of these criteria.

“We should learn from history; we cannot afford to be the world’s policeman,” Gabbard said. “The United States should not insert itself in the midst of this civil war, which is rooted in sectarian hatred and animosity between various warring religious groups.

For senior White House officials, it’s likely not shock that an Iraq war veteran has misgivings about America being sucked into another sectarian civil war in the Middle East.

But Gabbard’s statement contained parts that could signal very bad news for the Obama White House’s war push, including her declaration to “strongly urge my colleagues” to vote against a use-of-force resolution.

Because she is a DNC vice chair, her colleagues have plenty of incentive to at least listen to her case. And Gabbard knows how to make a case and ask insightful questions, according to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Gabbard last Wednesday, during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, asked Dempsey this not-so-softball question:

“I’m wondering what your strategy and objectives are regarding securing these weapons across Syria, especially if Assad loses control or if the regime falls, how we secure them, given the nonsupport from Russia and China, in particular from al-Qaida and terrorists, people who have stated very explicitly their desire to harm our people and American interests.”

Dempsey responded by tipping his cap to Gabbard’s strategic military thinking:

“I guess this is what we get for training you how to ask questions about military operations. And thanks for your service.”

This brings us back to her statement, which will no doubt make the rounds among her Democratic colleagues as they mull how to vote on a Syria use-of-force measure:

“Presently, Syria does not present a direct security threat to the United States. Military action will undermine our national defense, as even a limited strike could very easily escalate into a regional conflict, stretching thin a military that has been at war for more than 12 years.”

“All Americans are saddened and angered by the carnage that has resulted from the use of these chemical weapons. However, even after the many hearings and classified briefings I have attended, I am unconvinced that this military strike would eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons or prevent them from being used again. Indeed, the risk may increase, due to the possibility these weapons could fall into the hands of Syrian opposition group factions such as al-Qaida, who we can be confident would use them without hesitation.”

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett