By Joe Hallett and Darrel Rowland
U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers is a rare bird: A colonel and a congressman.
A full colonel after 28 years in the Ohio Army National Guard, the Upper Arlington Republican also graduated last year from the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., and says the knowledge he gained during two years of study would benefit his 434 colleagues in the House and the 100 members of the Senate whose collective attention is being refocused around a volatile world.
"It pays dividends because when you look at issues -- whether it's Benghazi or Syria or what's going on in Iran -- that military strategic training is something I wish every member of Congress had to get," Stivers said.
Indeed, there seems to be a Capitol Hill craving these days for more information on how to deal with global flashpoints. Interviews with members of Ohio's congressional delegation suggested a heightened interest in the nation's security after the Boston Marathon terrorist attack and vexing worries about chemical or nuclear warfare emanating from Syria, Iran or North Korea.
The representatives know they could be called upon to make critical votes in coming months on matters of war and peace and they have opinions on how the U.S. should react to specific security threats, but most are far from dyed-in-the-wool certain.
"A lot of us get very frustrated by the lack of information that we get in Congress," said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles.
Many are unsure, for instance, how the United States should respond to evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has crossed President Barack Obama's "red line" against using chemical weapons on his own people in a two-year civil war that has killed at least 94,000 people and perhaps as many as 120,000.
Additional information, the Ohioans said, would give them more insight into what the U.S. should do to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon or how to respond if North Korea's unpredictable leader, Kim Jong-un, attacks South Korea, Japan or Guam.
Stivers, for one, said he has gained a valuable historical perspective from his War College education on whether it is time to revisit the broad military and national-security powers granted to the president after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"We need to reassert congressional authority," he said. "The Constitution is really clear about who has the power to declare war, and we need to be clear about what that means."
But few members of Congress have the benefit of Stivers' training and most receive scant information about the world's hot spots from the government they oversee. Only a handful of Ohio's 16 House members and two senators serve on committees that are privy to detailed and classified information on national security and foreign policy from the administration.
As a result, most members are left to trust -- or not -- that the president and his administration are doing the right thing. Such appraisals tend to be viewed through partisan lenses, as evident in congressional hearings on the killings of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others connected to last September's terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.
"Congress is being left out of the discussion," said Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta. "I have some concerns about this president's willingness to be accountable to the American people through their elected representatives in Congress who are supposed to hold the checks and balances in place."
Contrarily, Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Jefferson Township, said she is "comfortable with the power the president has and the job he's doing on foreign policy."
Whether it is in Syria, Iran or North Korea, the two senators and six representatives interviewed said committing U.S. troops to a conflict should be a last resort, suggesting that Americans already are war-weary.
Referring to Syria, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said, "I don't think there is any sentiment in this country to have soldiers there."
Others, however, said tighter sanctions against the Assad regime and a no-fly-zone to thwart aerial attacks should be considered in consultation with U.S. allies.
"I believe that even if no red line were crossed, like using chemical weapons, that the United States should take a more aggressive position," said Republican Sen. Rob Portman, suggesting that that enforcement of a no-fly zone could provide safe areas for Syrian civilians.
"We need to be a little more aggressive in cracking down on how the Assad regime is getting its arms," Ryan said. "So, it's not boots-on-the-ground, but it would be the no-fly zone."
Republican Reps. Mike Turner of Dayton and Pat Tiberi of Genoa Township were critical of Obama for drawing a red line and then not enforcing it after evidence emerged that Assad had used chemical weapons.
"When the president drew a line and that line is crossed, it doesn't only impact us in (Syria), it impacts us all over the world and it weakens our position, whether it's with North Korea or in Afghanistan with the Taliban," Tiberi said. "It makes us look really, really weak."
Turner, a member of the Armed Services Committee, declined to say what actions Obama should take in Syria, but said, "You have a president who speaks words and there's no action, and in foreign policy and in military issues of strength, that's dangerous."
Although the members of the Ohio delegation agreed it is imperative that Iran be kept from developing a nuclear weapon, they declined to specify what the U.S. should do to prevent that beyond tightening sanctions, consulting with Russia, and coordinating with Israel.
"We can't let Iran get a nuclear weapon because we know what they're going to do with it," Johnson said, noting that Iran is committed to Israel's destruction. "All options should be on the table."
Said Stivers: "The day that Iran gets a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia has already said they will purchase a nuclear weapon. Then you get a very dangerous neighborhood armed with many nuclear weapons and that's a very dangerous thing for the entire world."
While expressing relief that Kim Jong-un appears to be standing down, the Ohio lawmakers agreed that the U.S. has treaty obligations to protect South Korea and Japan if North Korea attacks either. The key to prevent an attack, they said, is by appealing to China to use its leverage with North Korea.
Almost all of the Ohioans said they were concerned about the use of drones and are open to reconsidering the broad military powers granted to President George W. Bush after 9/11 to pre-empt or respond to terrorist threats.
Brown noted that while he was a member of the House, he voted against sweeping executive powers, and he said he would like to see them reined in now.
"I think the president can come to the Congress and we can act quickly when we need to," Brown said. "To give any executive, whether it's Bush or Obama, too much power is problematic to me generally."
Tiberi said Congress should give the use of drones as much or more scrutiny than it did to the use of torture by waterboarding.
"I trust the president, but I'm a little uncomfortable that we spent all this time on the waterboarding of three people who are still alive and are enemy combatants, yet hundreds of people have been killed, including one American, by drones -- and there's just no debate about that," Tiberi said.
But Portman said Congress should be careful in curbing presidential powers because "there are groups out there who want to do us harm."
"Some of those powers that have been granted have enabled us to be informed about attacks before they occur and to therefore thwart them," Portman said. "You don't hear about all of those. I think Boston reminded a lot of us of that."