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Obama's Syria push stymied by Iraq fatigue

10:38 AM, Sep 7, 2013   |    comments
President Obama answers questions during his news conference at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Sept. 6, 2013. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)
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WASHINGTON - As the debate over whether U.S. lawmakers should give President Obama authorization to launch a military strike against Syria intensified this week, Sen. Dick Durbin said he could hear the ghosts of the Iraq War rattling in the halls of Congress.

Back in his home state of Illinois, the Democratic senator - who was among the 10 members of the Senate Foreign Relations committee to vote on Wednesday in favor of giving the president a use-of-force authorization in Syria - said he has heard from some of the president's friends and supporters who don't agree with Obama's call for a punitive military strike against Bashar Assad's regime.

"I've listened to this debate and I can't tell you how many times I've hearkened back to 12 years ago and a debate over the war in Iraq," said Durbin, who voted against going to war in Iraq. "Our decision is being made in the shadow of the war in Iraq. ... The shadow recalls that moment 12 years ago when the government of the United States of America was guilty of a political mortal sin: It misled the American people into a war."

Obama, whose opposition to the Iraq War was a cornerstone of his 2008 campaign, now finds himself in a somewhat ironic position of fighting back against perceptions that his call for a limited military strike will be the war in Iraq redux.

Ahead of next week's expected votes in the House and Senate on authorizing a limited airstrike against Syria, administration officials are struggling to assuage lawmakers who are hearing from war-weary constituents that say they should reject the president's call for limited military action in Syria.

At this week's hearings on Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry said plainly that a strike on Syria would be nothing like the 8-year-old war in the Middle East that cost the USA more than $1 trillion, 4,000 American troops' lives and was rationalized largely on the faulty premise that Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Obama himself took pains during his visit to Sweden and at the G-20 summit in Russia this week to remind Europeans of his strong opposition to the Iraq War and has noted several times in recent days that a military strike would be limited in scope and duration and he would deploy no U.S. troops to fight in Syria.

He again remarked on Americans' ambivalence to the Syria crisis in his weekly radio address, which aired Saturday morning, and noted in remarks at the end of the G-20 that there may be even greater suspicion among his fellow Democrats than there is with Republicans.

"What we're talking about is not an open-ended intervention," vows Obama, who plans to address the nation Tuesday to make his case for a military strike. "This would not be another Iraq or Afghanistan."

Even Obama's former spokesman, Robert Gibbs, pushed back against the perception during an appearance on MSNBC this week, saying that the only commonalities between the Iraq war and what Obama wants to do in Syria is that both countries are in the Middle East.

But Iraq fatigue is something that could be difficult for Obama to overcome with polls showing there is no appetite among the American public for getting involved in another conflict.

Nearly six in 10 Americans are opposed to using military action as a response to the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons in the nation's bloody civil war, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday. A Pew Research Center poll, also released Tuesday afternoon, found that 48% of adults are against military strikes, while 29% say they are in favor.

Opponents of the war and even some of the president's congressional supporters appear mindful of the difficulty of bucking constituents who still have a bitter taste over Iraq and nearly 13 years of fighting in Afghanistan.

In the House, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have announced their support for authorizing action, but both say they will do no arm-twisting on behalf of the president. Members will have to vote their conscience, Boehner and Pelosi say.

Activists on the left opposing a military strike against Syria say the reluctance by Pelosi, who voted against the Iraq War, to give Democratic members the hard press to support the president signals that they have an opening to shut down Obama's effort to win congressional backing in the House.

"The House is where we're going to be able to stop this war," said Becky Bond, political director of Credo Action, a left-leaning group that is opposed to U.S. military action in Syria. "Leadership is worried they're not going to win this vote in the House, and that's a signal to us that we need to redouble our efforts to make sure that this massive citizen outpouring of communications to their lawmakers not to get us involved in a third war in the Middle East is making a difference. And we're going to continue to hammer on that."

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