Republicans Divided Over Potential Strike On Syria

Republican congressional leaders support an American military strike in Syria, but the rank-and-file membership is divided. GOP Congressmen Doug Collins of Georgia and Luke Messer of Indiana serve on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. They talk about the debate in the Republican caucus.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we'll take a look at the latest employment numbers and we'll also talk about what has and has not changed since the Wall Street meltdown five years ago. That's in just a few minutes.

First, we're going to turn our attention to the ongoing political debate over Syria. The Obama administration is still trying to persuade members of Congress to support a military strike against Syria in the wake of reports that the regime there used chemical weapons against civilians. But even those who support the president's position are dealing with a skeptical public and colleagues. Republican Senator John McCain, who strongly backs a military strike, faced critics at a town hall meeting last night in Arizona.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOWN HALL MEETING)

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: We will respect everyone's view and if you wait...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You don't respect our view. We didn't send you to get war for us. We sent you to stop the war.

MCCAIN: You know what, what you're doing is not just disrespectful, what you're doing, Sir, is not just disrespectful to me, but you're disrespectful to others who would like their opinion and their views heard.

MARTIN: Yesterday, we heard from two skeptics in Congress, both of whom happen to be members of the President's own party. Today, we're joined by two Republican representatives who find themselves with different views on the Syria debate. Doug Collins represents Georgia's 9th District. He opposes military action at this time. Luke Messer is the congressman for Indiana's 6th District. He supports military action against Syria at this time. And they both serve on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. And we're happy they're both with us. Thank you both so much for joining us.

REPRESENTATIVE LUKE MESSER: Glad to be here.

REPRESENTATIVE DOUG COLLINS: Hello, Michel.

MARTIN: Congressman Collins, I'm going to start with you. I want to just ask first about the substance of the question. Do you believe the reports that chemical weapons were used against civilians in Syria by the regime?

COLLINS: At this point, I have no reason to doubt the intelligence reports coming of Syria in regards to the use of chemical weapons.

MARTIN: So what informs your position at this time? That you oppose what the administration is requesting?

COLLINS: Well, I think the problem at this point, with this administration, and as an Iraq War veteran and looking at - when you look at the military objectives here and what are the military objectives, and also looking at the consequences of military objectives.

As I said the other day when I came into the hearing, I had questions. My only concern was at the end of the questions, I actually ended up with more questions on what was the nature of our strike, how are we going to carry it out. And then what are the contingencies for that area, not only in case something goes wrong, but also, in case it all goes right? What does that mean for Syria and, really, the rest of the region?

MARTIN: Congressman Messer, what about you? What informs your position at this point?

MESSER: Well, listen, I understand the misgivings of many, I'm no fan of this administration's foreign-policy. I believe their mismanagement in the region has compounded the problems there. But to me, the bottom line is, we can't stop being America just because we have an ineffective commander-in-chief. And based on my analysis of facts, as Doug said, I believe there were chemical weapons dropped in Syria by Assad. Clearly hundreds of innocent women and children were murdered and I frankly think the risks of inaction outweigh the risks of action. But this president has a lot of work to do to explain that to the American people and, frankly, he hasn't made his case yet.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that, Congressman Messer, what are you hearing from your constituents? We just played that short clip from that town hall meeting that Senator McCain hosted back in Arizona last night and - there were people who supported his position, too. I don't want to mislead people about that, but the polls show that the public is very skeptical. Even a lot of the president's traditional and consistent supporters are very skeptical at this time. So Congressman Messer, what are you hearing from your constituents?

MESSER: I would say I'm hearing those same echoes in my district. You know, we had town hall meetings through the month of August and the issue of Syria was alive and understood during those meetings. And I said clearly in my town hall meetings that based on the facts as I understood them, and I still had a lot yet to learn, that I was likely to support a targeted and strong strike.

But there's no question that there is no more somber decision as a nation than the decision about whether or not to send men and women into battle. The American people are understandably concerned about the very real risks that can come from action, as well, and the president has a lot of work to do.

I have said publicly about my colleagues, you know, listen, people of good conscience can look at the same facts and come to a different conclusion. And we have a very difficult choice before us.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the debate over the course of action that the U.S. should take in Syria. Our guests today are two congressional Republicans. They are both members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and they've taken different positions at this point. Congressman Collins, what about the point that the president has made, that Republican leaders, like Senator McCain, have made, which is that the credibility of the American government is at stake and really the international community.

I mean, the president said the other day in Stockholm, where he's on his way to the G20 economics summit, that he didn't draw this red line - the international community drew this red line and that if the United States does not ensure that it's enforced that really our standing is very much an issue here. What do you say to that?

COLLINS: Well, frankly, I think that was one of the lowest points that I've seen in the debate recently on this issue. When the president actually said this is not my red line and I -Congressman Messer and I are very good friends and we just, you know, respectfully disagree here, but this is when you have a president who, for two years, you know, the discussion is - from his first statement - is Assad must go. Really no action since then. There's been pleading from Congress to do something - never acting.

This is not the first chemical attack - two weeks ago - there were many chemical attacks in the preceding months, none of which we acted upon. Those red lines were crossed many times...

MARTIN: OK, but then Senator McCain - I'm sorry, forgive me, but Senator McCain and other Republican leaders also take the view that really the national leadership's credibility is at stake here. That America's standing on the world stage is at stake here. What about that? Do you agree or not?

COLLINS: Well, Republican leaders, you know, no matter what can make their statements and agree or disagree, but there's also Democratic leaders of the president's own party who disagree with him on this issue. So I think what we've got to look at here is, when you have a statement and you're talking about the red line - he said it's not his red line when he said, I will make my decision - a personal pronoun - my calculations on Syria based on the movement and use of chemical weapons. That's his redline.

I think the issue we've got to deal with here is not just the credibility. There needs to be a response, but where has the response been against Russia and China and others who are keeping their hands firmly upon Syria and protecting their leadership and still have not removed their hand from that leadership. There's just a lot of other things here. And again, this is not a two-week process. This is not a two-week problem. This has been a two-year problem.

And again, first thing, it's not against the president or for the president, this is an issue of what is our objective, describe limited. What is limited involvement? And the Senate resolution, an amendment passed by Mr. McCain, to me, bothers me greatly in the expansion of how we're to tip the balance, in my words - his words a little different - but tip the balance of the battlefield to reach a negotiated settlement. None of these parties seem to be willing to negotiate.

MARTIN: Congressman Collins, what's your better idea here? I mean, Congresswoman Lee, whom we spoke with yesterday, is a member of the Progressive Caucus and she's famously, in the past, voted - sometimes the only member of Congress - to vote against military action in other arenas, and she's put forward a different proposal. What - do you have a better proposal? Do you have a better idea or would you point the administration in a different direction? What would it be?

MESSER: Well, frankly, I would've pointed the administration a few weeks ago to a different direction, which, you know, the understanding is the immediacy of the moment in making a military decision. If you wanted to do a strike, there was a window of opportunity to do the strike. It has been used before by many other presidents. Instead, we've waited two weeks, now we've made it political. And now we said, well, let's go to Congress. And I'm glad the consultation is going on. I think this is a debate that America needs to have and are concerned.

But I think the question I have is also international support. Also dealing - as I just said a few moments ago - with Russia and with China who are already continuing to keep their hand in propping up the Assad regime. And then looking at it - and I think being disingenuous to the American people to believe that a targeted strike is the warning of the day on Syria's chemical weapon capability is not putting us in the middle of us taking sides of a Civil War. I just don't believe that's being frank with the American people.

MARTIN: Congressman Messer - Congressman Messer, can I ask you this on the question of urgency, there are the concern on the part of those who have supported a military intervention long before now that Syria is now in a position to move, you know, materiel and to make it more difficult to degrade their capabilities. And there are some who say, given the urgency - what they believe is the urgency of the matter - that the president should go forward whether Congress agrees or not. What's your take on that?

MESSER: Well, there's two big questions in what you said there. I mean, I think first, I believe the president has compounded this problem with his mismanagement of his call for a vote. If this was an urgent action, we should've been called back as Congress, immediately. I mean, frankly, the delay has sent a mixed message to the American people and undercut our ability to help make this very important case.

And again, you know, Representative Collins and I are allies on virtually every issue, and I am no fan of this administration. I think there is little doubt that the delay has complicated our ability militarily and I think there is, obviously, strong risk now - at a minimum risk, of Assad putting forward human shields and trying to make a bad situation worse.

MARTIN: Now would you have supported the administration bypassing this debate and just acting unilaterally as the...

MESSER: Well, I think...

MARTIN: ...Administration said that they felt that they had the authority to do?

MESSER: Yeah. I think there is a legitimate - I mean, I signed a letter asking the president to consult with Congress. I think there is a legitimate legal argument to be made that they could have acted under urgency before consulting with Congress. I do believe that now that the president has sought the consultation of Congress, he must abide by the outcome. If he does not, I believe it will create a constitutional crisis.

MARTIN: Well, thank you both so much for your time. This is an important and complex issue, and we appreciate very much your talking to us about it. Luke Messer is a Republican who represents Indiana's 6th District. He joined us by phone from his district. Doug Collins is a Republican representing Georgia's 9th District. He also joined us by phone from his office there. Thank you. They're both members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, by the way. Thank you both so much, again, for speaking with us.

MESSER: Thank you.

COLLINS: Thank you, appreciate.

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