WASHINGTON — A vote on military action is the most wrenching, most profound decision a member of Congress can make, and that’s why Tom Carper was glad the minister talked about the Syrian crisis in church.
Carper, a Democratic U.S. senator from Delaware, attended Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington on Sunday. He heard Senior Pastor Greg Jones mourn the loss of so many innocent Syrian civilians, victims of an apparent chemical weapons attack.
Still, Carper asked himself, does that mean the U.S. should launch a military strike, one that could trigger a broader war and cause thousands of other casualties? “I’ll hold my fire for now,” Carper said, saying he’d wait until he gets more briefings and asks more questions.
All over Capitol Hill, members of Congress are trying to pry wisdom from experts, clergy and ordinary folks back home. There are political calculations, to be sure.
They search for comfort with a decision about life and death that will color their consciences and careers forever.
The usual guideposts aren’t there. Partisan leaders do not twist arms. Polls can be fickle, with a history of bouncing up and down depending on the news. And should a strike lead to more tragedy, the lawmaker will have to live with the thought he’s somehow responsible.
As a result, “It’s hard to put in place a metric for deciding,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.
This search for wisdom takes different forms. Some members of Congress start with a simple premise: President Barack Obama is in charge, and if his team sees the need for a strike, he gets the benefit of any doubts.
“Whether you like the president or not, others are watching and he is the commander in chief of our country,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
Others start on the opposite spectrum, full of skepticism. “We all know what Day One is going to be like. I want to know what Day 2, Day 3, Day 4 is going to look like,” said Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho. “I want to know where we’re going with this.”
Most struggle to find a comfort level.
Veterans of war votes warn it’s not an easy process. Jane Harman was a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee during the 2002 debate over whether to authorize war against Iraq. Harman, a Democrat, represented a southern California district with pro-defense Republicans and far-left Democrats.
Her husband urged her to vote no. “He thought the whole thing was bunk. I said, ‘Honey, you haven’t seen the intelligence,’” recalled Harman, now president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a nonpartisan research group.
But she read the complete National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq and asked advice from experts at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, who gave mixed responses. Harman visited intelligence sites in Great Britain and found “the people who put the intelligence together believed it.” She made up her mind to vote yes while looking at the British reports.
Charles Bass, a former New Hampshire Republican representative, recalled also being convinced by the intelligence.
“That was the deciding factor,” he said. “Did I really want to go to war? Did I care if (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein was alive or died? 9/11 was fresh in my mind, and it was clear North Korea, Iran and Iraq were our enemies. We could not allow them to threaten the national security of the United States.”
Today, Congress is haunted by the prospect that those who supposedly know best could be wrong, as the Iraqi threat of weapons of mass destruction turned out to be false. And the notion that striking Syria could spark a broader conflict also gives them pause.
“We’ve been here before,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., can’t get the past off his mind. “You have to look back at history and try to make an evaluation. You have to use all the things that have happened,” he said, “and in my era that means from Vietnam to the present. We were told communism would spread around the world after Vietnam, but it didn’t seem to happen.”
This much is likely: The votes expected to begin next week will be tough to easily categorize by party affiliation, geography, age or anything else.
“On these kinds of issues it’s not a question of whipping,” said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, using a term that means pressuring colleagues to vote the party way.
She will talk to colleagues, and she may get personal. As Pelosi was leaving her San Francisco home Monday, her 5-year-old grandson asked her about Syria.
“He said: ‘I think no war.’ I said, ‘Well, I generally agree with that, but you know they’ve killed hundreds of children there.’ And he said, 5 years old: ‘Were these children in the United States?’ And I said: ‘Well, no. But they’re children wherever they are.’”
What her grandson didn’t ask, of course, was whether U.S. action could elicit a series of horrors elsewhere. Will more children die? There is no easy answer, nor is there a convenient path to finding one.
“If you go through the Book of Proverbs, you find the word ‘wisdom’ is in every other sentence,” Carper said. “So I always ask God for the knowledge and wisdom for the right thing to do and the strength and courage to do it.”