Midlands lawmakers hear an intense 'no' from voters on strike against Syria - Omaha.com
Published Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:59 pm
Midlands lawmakers hear an intense 'no' from voters on strike against Syria

WASHINGTON — The constituent messages pouring into Rep. Jeff Fortenberry's office have been blunt.

“Please vote against the U.S. taking military action in Syria,” one Nebraskan wrote the Republican congressman. “Our military has gone above and beyond and cannot be expected to do the impossible task of saving the Middle East from themselves. Enough is enough.”

“There must be another way,” another wrote. “The cost is too great, the risk beyond measure.”

“This would be a huge mistake on our part with catastrophic implications for the future,” said a third.

The intensity of the opposition — mirrored in other Midlands congressional offices and national polls — suggests that after donating so much blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are questioning their country's role as the world's policeman.

They're thinking maybe it's time for Uncle Sam to take a break from the beat.

That attitude will affect how the country responds to Syria and other thorny international issues in the future.

Part of the opposition to U.S. involvement in Syria is specific to the situation. Even some committed internationalists question the advisability of military strikes there.

And Republicans have not been shy about pointing a finger of blame at the Obama administration for failing to rally public support.

But the strength of the opposition indicates something broader at work.

A recent tally provided by Fortenberry's office showed 1,178 of his constituents had expressed their opposition to military intervention in Syria, while 30 supported it. That translates into 97.5 percent opposed.

It's the most lopsided break­down his office has ever seen on any issue, according to spokesman Josh Moenning.

The call volume for Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., has been on par with gun control and immigration, with those opposed to military intervention in Syria outnumbering supporters roughly 25 to 1.

Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., said calls to his office have been more than 99 percent opposed.

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., was receiving hundreds of calls and emails about Syria per day at the peak — a response equal to the immigration debate, although shy of health care. Johanns said the calls were at least 95 to 1 in opposition to military intervention.

Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., quipped that the breakdown in calls to his office has actually been 50-50.

“Fifty percent are saying 'no' and the other 50 percent are saying 'Hell no,' ” Smith joked.

National polling numbers aren't quite so one-sided, but they do reflect the country's deep skepticism toward military intervention in Syria.

A recent Gallup survey showed 51 percent of Americans opposed to military intervention to reduce Syria's ability to use chemical weapons and a mere 36 percent in favor.

That's among the lowest level of support for any U.S. military intervention Gallup has asked about in the past 20 years.

It's a popular cliche to say that Americans are “war weary.” It might be more appropriate to say they're “war exhausted.”

Fischer likes to quote ABC News reporter Martha Rad­datz, who said Americans are also “war wise.” After years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they know exactly the kinds of consequences that accompany armed conflict.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were fresh in the minds of Americans when the country went into those wars, of course.

Memories of the terror attacks haven't exactly faded, but they can no longer overcome the mounting sense that enough is enough, said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

Bowman pointed to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll that found only 28 percent of Americans saying the war in Afghanistan had been worth it, compared with 67 percent saying it wasn't.

“That's pretty significant when you have two-thirds of the country saying that what we've been doing in Afghanistan hasn't been worth its cost,” she said. “People are really tired, particularly when they don't see it as accomplishing a lot.”

Isolationist sentiment goes back to the start of the nation.

In his farewell address, President George Washington urged the fledgling United States to avoid becoming entangled in European wars and politics.

The terrible toll taken by World War I gave rise to strong isolationist tendencies, and politicians such as Sen. Robert Taft, R-Ohio, advocated isolationist policies.

“Americans have always been reluctant about internationalism,” Bowman said. “They recognize that the country has to play a global role but they're very tired of shouldering burdens, many of which they think they shoulder largely alone. ... Americans just think it's just too much. We've been involved in the Middle East for a long time (and) things don't seem to be getting better.”

Still, she cautioned against assuming that Americans would never back any overseas intervention again. At the end of the day, they still want to stand by allies and be engaged in the world.

“I don't think we're seeing a new wave of Robert Taft isolationism,” she said. “But they are cautious, they are reluctant.”

University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Tom Gouttierre isn't surprised at the way public sentiment is running.

“This is something I've seen building,” said Gouttierre, the longtime director of UNO's Center for Afghanistan Studies.

He said Americans tend to associate everything that happens in the Middle East with 9/11 and think we've been there long enough.

“People tend to lump them together and see we've been in that part of the world engaged in hostilities or military action, and they don't understand that they might not be really linked,” he said.

He said the current and past presidents have fallen short in their responsibility to educate the public about American interests in the region and why they should be concerned.

The threat of al-Qaida continues, he said, as the group mutates like a virus.

But even Gouttierre, who describes himself as a Democrat who voted for Obama twice, isn't sold on the idea of military strikes in Syria.

He said it's a good thing that the country has pulled back from the brink of conflict and has some time to reconsider the situation.

Opposition to action in Syria arose quickly and has crossed party lines. It's not just Republicans hearing it from constituents.

Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, is running for the state's open Senate seat now held by fellow Democrat Tom Harkin.

Braley said that of the 3,000 constituents who have reached out to him on their own, 98.4 percent were opposed to military intervention.

Combining that with Iowans from whom he solicited opinions raised the total pool to more than 20,000, and the rate of opposition among the larger group was 80 percent.

Harkin described the reaction of constituents as “leery and weary” of the country continuing to be involved in Middle East conflicts.

“They just don't seem to get us anywhere, and we're getting involved in sectarian wars and border wars that have been fought for literally hundreds, if not thousands of years,” Harkin said. “I think people, rightfully, my constituents, rightfully, have discerned that we're not going to settle that by a few bombs or Tomahawk missiles.”

Contact the writer: Joseph Morton

joe.morton@owh.com    |  

Joe is The World-Herald's Washington, D.C., bureau, covering national political developments that matter most to Midlanders.

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