WASHINGTON — Nebraska and Iowa lawmakers returning Monday to Capitol Hill were met with an aggressive lobbying campaign by an Obama administration trying to drum up support for military intervention in Syria.
President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other national security officials tried to stick to a simple message: If dictators who use chemical weapons on their own people aren't held accountable, it endangers every country in the world, including the United States.
The campaign included personal phone calls, classified briefings and a media blitz, but a World-Herald sampling of Iowa and Nebraska lawmakers indicated that the administration was making little progress.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., had initially offered support for a “strategic, targeted” U.S. response in the wake of Bashar Assad's Aug. 21 use of chemical weapons.
Monday, however, Johanns put himself in the “undecided” column and said the president has a lot of work to do today, when he is scheduled to visit Capitol Hill.
“He has to make a compelling case that this is a difference maker, that we're not just tossing bombs over there to have some kind of response to a bad guy killing his citizens. And to date, I must admit I've not seen that kind of compelling argument that this is a difference maker,” Johanns said.
What about that earlier statement of support for a U.S. response?
“Back then, had (Obama) made a decision that a strike was appropriate, I think we would have been in a different setting,” Johanns said. “Now all this time has passed, and I must admit I don't understand that, because I think everybody agrees he has the power to make the strike.”
Philip Gordon, special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East national security staff, said it's clear that Assad used chemical weapons on a large scale and if he is not held accountable, he and others will use them again.
Gordon stressed that the president is asking Congress to support only a limited strike.
Among the officials helping to make the administration's case is Hagel, the former GOP senator from Nebraska and a combat-wounded veteran of the Vietnam War.
Gordon said Hagel's military background gives his voice extra weight. Gordon also cited past criticisms of Obama and Hagel on the handling of the Iraq War.
“You have some pretty credible voices here saying they know what the costs of military involvement are,” Gordon said. “They're not people — I'll just put it this way — that you would suspect of being trigger-happy or anxious to get us involved in military action. I think they're pretty credible on this point.”
Still, many lawmakers remain unconvinced.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., was among a small group of GOP senators invited to Biden's house Sunday night for a discussion about Syria over dinner. Obama attended as well.
A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Fischer said that the situation with Syria remains fluid and that she would wait until after Obama's address tonight before announcing any decisions.
Still, she said, she shares the concerns of the “vast, vast majority of people” in Nebraska who are opposed to intervention in Syria.
“I am deeply troubled that we would take any action,” Fischer said.
Resistance also runs deep in the House.
Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, said he didn't think administration officials changed anybody's mind with a Monday evening briefing. He even described himself as offended by their attitude toward members.
Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., said he wants to review all the information but is leaning “no” on the issue.
“I'm skeptical that intervention, a strike, would be effective,” Smith said.
And Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said the administration has a long way to go to get his vote.
Part of the problem is that groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood or al-Qaida would be empowered if anything topples the Assad regime, he said.