Sen. Murphy a 'skeptic' on Syria

HARTFORD, Conn. – A Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said he remained a “skeptic” and a “tough sell” on military strikes in Syria despite a personal phone call from President Obama on Sunday.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters here on Tuesday that Obama called him Sunday to lay out his argument and win his vote on a congressional resolution to authorize the use of force.

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“I return to Washington still as a skeptic of military intervention in Syria,” Murphy said. “I’m going to go into this week with an open mind. I spoke to the president this weekend and told him that I was going to need to be convinced but that I would let him and his administration make the case.”

Murphy, serving his first year in the Senate after four in the House, had been a vocal opponent of military intervention before the Obama administration said it had evidence that President Bashar Assad’s regime was behind a chemical weapons attack last month that killed more than 1,400 people, including hundreds of children.

He spoke shortly before Obama earned key endorsements from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is also on board with military strikes on Syria.

Murphy said that the draft resolution the White House sent to Congress would have to be changed to earn his vote.

“The resolution that the White House submitted to Congress is a non-starter as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “It doesn’t have any of the limitations that the president has talked about publicly, such as a restriction against the use of ground forces.”

Members of the Foreign Relations Committee are working on new language that would clarify and limit the president’s authority to engage militarily in Syria.

The freshman senator cut short a forum on housing finance reform in Hartford to return to Washington for a hearing in the Foreign Relations Committee and classified briefings on Syria.

He told reporters that he had not seen his constituents as engaged on an issue “since the debate around the healthcare bill” in 2009 and 2010.

“Everywhere I went this weekend, people came up to me and wanted to talk to me about Syria,” Murphy said. “Now by and large, that feedback was negative. By and large, the people that talked to me did not want us to go into Syria.”

In the Sunday phone call, Murphy said, Obama argued that the U.S. involvement in Syria could be “time-limited” and that it was necessary to send a message to countries like Iran that are amassing weapons of mass destruction. But Murphy said he remained “doubtful” that a limited military strike would not escalate into a much longer and more expensive commitment by the U.S.

“I still don’t believe that a military strike is going to make the situation better for the Syrian people,” he said. “It frankly may make it worse. Assad will respond, whether or not it’s with future chemical weapons strikes.

“If we are only engaging in a short term, targeted military strike, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem for the Syrian people that they’re living under a murderous regime, whether or not he’s using chemical weapons.”

Obama’s most persuasive argument, Murphy said, was that the U.S. needed to “send a message the international community that this behavior is unacceptable.”

A much less compelling case, he said, was that a vote against military strikes would cripple Obama’s presidency and damage U.S. credibility in the world.

“If the president doesn’t get the authorization for this strike in Syria,” Murphy said, “I don’t buy the argument that that does not allow him to be a strong force for good in a future conflict, a future dispute with a country like Iran.”