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Progressive Democrats Doubt Syria Strategy


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later this hour, we'll return to a subject we've been talking about a lot at the beginning of this school year, which is education. We're going to talk about how to prepare students with autism for life after high school. That's the subject of a new documentary called "Best Kept Secret" and we'll hear more about that in just a few minutes. First, though, we want to go back to the subject that is engaging the attention of most of our national leaders, as well as much of the world, which is the situation in Syria.

President Obama is overseas meeting with a group of 20 world leaders on the economy at an economic summit while Congress has taken up his request to debate whether to proceed with military action against Syria. That, of course, comes after reports that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. A divided Senate Committee on Wednesday voted to give the president limited authority to use force against Syria. But what's been remarkable about the debate in these very partisan times is that many of the people supporting the president's views oppose him on other matters, while some of the president's strongest supporters on other matters have been reluctant to follow him on this issue.

That's the side of this conversation we're going to focus on. We've called two members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who will be asked to vote on the issue in the coming days. Barbara Lee is a Democrat. She represents California's 13th District. She joins us from her office in Oakland. Congresswoman Lee, thank you so much for speaking with us.

REPRESENTATIVE BARBARA LEE: Happy to be with you today, Michel.

MARTIN: Elijah Cummings is also a Democrat. He represents Maryland's 7th District and he joins us from his office in Baltimore. Congressman Cummings, thank you so much for joining us once again.

REPRESENTATIVE ELIJAH CUMMINGS: It's good to be with you and Congresswoman Lee.

MARTIN: Congresswoman Lee, let me start with you 'cause you famously voted against a resolution to mount a military strikes against Afghanistan after 9/11. You were the only congressperson to do that at the time and received a lot of backlash and a lot of kind of public attention for that. You voted against invading Iraq. Is it that you philosophically oppose the use of force in all circumstances, or are you just not persuaded about the administration's intelligence in this matter?

LEE: Well, Michel, first, I'm not a pacifist, and believe you me, when the United States - when there's an imminent threat, the president has all the authority. He doesn't have to come to Congress. He has the constitutional and the international requirements to use force. I believe - and as I believed in 2001 after the horrific attacks of 9/11 - I mean, this resolution came before Congress three days later. It was a blank check. It read in a way, and was written in a way, where, until we repeal that resolution, it can be used to use force forever in perpetuity. That resolution has been used over 30 times.

It's now being used to justify the use of drones. It has been used for many, many surveillance activities. It's been used for the insertion of our troops in many conflicts around the world. So having said that, Michel, I think it's very important that before we commit our resources, our military hardware and, of course, our personnel to any military action, we have to know exactly what we're doing. We have to debate it in Congress and we have to know that it is in the national security interest of the United States to do that.

I did not believe that in 2001, I did not believe that when I voted against Iraq - the Iraq War. Actually, I offered an alternative resolution during the Iraq debate that said, minimally, let's let the U.N. inspectors complete their inspections process. I received only 72 votes for that. But had we allowed that to occur, I don't believe we would've had the horrible experience that we've had in terms of loss of life and the loss of resources in Iraq.

MARTIN: Well, let me bring Congressman Cummings in on this - and Congresswoman Lee, I do want to mention that you did author a letter to the president asking him to proceed with congressional debate. I think you got 60 co-signers and as you see the Congress is now debating that. So many of your colleagues have agreed with you. And the president did agree with you on that particular point.

What about you, Congressman Cummings? Where are you on this? I mean, do you believe the administration - the administration's intelligence or whatever their sources are that say that these chemical weapons attacks did in fact occur?

CUMMINGS: I've been through several briefings now and talked to a number of key players, and I'm convinced that the chemical weapons were used and I'm not completely sure about the direct link to President Assad of Syria, but I do believe that there's a pretty good probability. So - but the fact is that - I agree with Congresswoman Lee, we're in a situation where, first of all, 95 - probably 97 percent of everybody who calls my office and e-mails my office - and this, by the way, I come from a district which was about 85 percent for Obama - President Obama - saying no. And walking in here today to my office, I had a nurse, Michel, at Johns Hopkins, who's been there for 17 years, beg me not to vote for this bill.

And so I said, do you understand there's chemical weapons? She says, folks have been using chemical weapons for a long time. She said, do you realize when I took my son to school he couldn't even - they didn't even have books for him to even, you know, to learn from. But we're going over to a country and we're going to be bombing - we don't know how it's going to end, and Congresswoman Lee is right. The problem here are the unintended consequences, too. We don't know - you know, we've got a fella who had been accused of gassing his own people, some 400 of them children, and he has already said there are going to be repercussions and retaliation.

So, you know, I think that a vote on this resolution, you have got to assume, I don't care how narrow it is, and by the way, I am glad that the Senate was able to narrow it in committee, but no matter how narrow it is, I don't see how a person can go into this vote believing that it's going to probably be some ramifications coming out of this and problems coming out of this, whereby there has to be - there will not have to be some additional actions. And that's a problem.

MARTIN: Can I go back to Congresswoman Lee on this? I mean, the president has said - Secretary of State John Kerry said in his briefings to the Senate - I don't know if he said this to you personally - that the president said that it's not his credibility that's on the line, it's the country's and it's in fact the world's. I mean, he casts this very much as a moral question.

And I'd like to ask you - how you answer that? And Congresswoman Lee, I don't know if I heard an answer from you if whether you believe that chemical weapons were in fact used. I mean, do you? And if that's the case, I mean, the president said that there's a - that it's not his red line, it's the world's red line. Do you think that's true?

LEE: The evidence is very compelling that chemical weapons were used. And in fact, you know, we must hold - I mean, these are horrific crimes. They're crimes against humanity and we must hold - and I believe the Assad regime perpetrated these crimes - we must hold whomever - we must hold them accountable. But I have to say that we have to understand when Secretary Kerry said - and he was right - there is no military solution, and in fact, the only way we're going to stop this is through a political settlement.

Our credibility, I think, is on the line when in fact we continue to work for political and negotiated settlement, yet we continue to decide to use force. That will lead us much further from a negotiated settlement. Also, Michel, we have to look at the harm that could be done. We don't know what the collateral damage is going to be. We do not know what retaliation will take place. We do not know what the possibilities are for the conflict to spread and for regional war to begin.

We don't know any of those, and you know, there is this - do no more harm. You know, I think that, you know, our credibility, first of all, is what it should be in the world, if in fact we bring the international community to support whatever is taking place, and of course that has not happened.

MARTIN: Congresswoman Lee, can I assume that that means you're voting no? Is that a no?

LEE: No, I'm not voting for this because I believe we have alternatives and we have nonmilitary alternatives, Michel. I am offering an alternative, as I did with Iraq, an alternative bill that would lay out - and we've worked with defense experts and other experts on this - to lay out what an option would look like that's nonmilitary, that would get us to, one, a negotiated settlement, two, hold those who perpetrated these horrific crimes - hold them accountable and bring them to justice. We're going to have that hopefully on the floor if we get a rule.

MARTIN: And Congressman Cummings, does that mean that you are a no, or are you still...

CUMMINGS: I have not...

MARTIN: ...Undecided?

CUMMINGS: I have not decided, but I can tell you, with regard to Congresswoman Lee's bill, I would definitely be a yes based on what she just said. I just think that we - I think it's important that we look at ways to deal with this from a diplomatic standpoint. And I think that we - you know, when you listen to all of the experts, including Secretary Kerry, they make it clear that they don't know what the end's going to be, as the old folks used to say, and they - and I seriously question whether they are prepared for what comes after this. I have not heard that and they have not talked about that.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, Congressman Cummings - we only have a minute left...


MARTIN: ...What's the predominant issue that you think you will use? What's the predominant metric in deciding your vote? Is it your constituents being so thoroughly opposed? Is it your past experience with the Iraq War? What is it?

CUMMINGS: It's a lot to do with the Iraq War, and certainly I'm concerned about my own - my constituents. Let me tell you something, when you've got 97 percent of your constituents saying no, it's kind of hard to say yes.

And that's why I've asked the president to come forth and address the nation and let them know why he's doing what he's already decided that he wants to do, so that the nation can have an opportunity to hear directly from him. He's one of the best orators I know, and so I think he'll be able to get that message over.

MARTIN: Is it possible he could change your mind?

CUMMINGS: I'm - you know - right now, my mind is not made up one way or another, to be frank with you. And I'm - but I am leaning towards no, but I need to - because I don't have enough information to feel that going into Syria is going to have the greater good as opposed to staying out.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. It's a very complicated subject and I thank you both...

CUMMINGS: It is very complicated.

MARTIN: ...So much for taking the time to speak with us about the - to lay out your views. Elijah Cummings is a Democrat. He represents Maryland's 7th District in the U.S. Congress. Barbara Lee is also a Democrat. She represents California's 13th District. They're both members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the House Progressive Caucus, and they were with us from their perspective offices. Thank you both so much for joining us.

CUMMINGS: Thank you.

LEE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.