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Atlanta Journal Constitution - Inside Intel on Chemical Use Bolsters Chambliss' Support of Attack on Syria

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Location: Washington, DC

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Amid skepticism from Congress and the American public, Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia is making a public case for military strikes against Syria.

Chambliss, who will be spared from facing voters over his stance on Syria because he is retiring from the Senate, freely admits his constituents are not behind him. But as the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, he is privy to more information than the average Joe, as well as the average senator, and says he is making the right call for the country.

That makes him the only member of the Georgia congressional delegation so far who is ready to vote to authorize military force in Syria, which the Senate will consider next week, followed by the House.

"We continue to hear from folks back home that they're very strongly opposed to the U.S. getting involved in this," Chambliss told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday. "I give that fact consideration, but the fact is that people at home don't have the benefit … of having these extensive classified intelligence briefings. …

"It's one of those hard and tough decisions that people sent me to Washington to make. I think I am educating myself to the extent I need to, and at the end of the day I'm going to do what's in the best interest of America."

Chambliss' delegation partner and friend Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, who plans to seek re-election in 2016, also supports attacking Syria in response to its apparent use of chemical weapons in that country's civil war.

But Isakson told the AJC this week that he was not satisfied with the military plan, pointedly saying he wants to avoid a similar situation to the botched 1980 helicopter rescue of hostages in Iran.

"There's no question the Syrians crossed the red line the president drew," Isakson said. "And I think when you draw lines, when you don't enforce those lines you become a paper tiger. But I'm not going to blindly give this president a blank check given the commitment he's shown in the past two weeks and what appears to be a lack of a strategy. I want to be part of the debate."

The House is trickier terrain, even though House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi back President Barack Obama's plan. Republicans have opposed many of Obama's past proposals and newer members have a more isolationist strain, while liberal Democrats are traditionally anti-war.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Coweta County Republican and member of the House Intelligence Committee, solidly opposes intervention because he fears what will happen to Syria's weapons cache if Bashar al-Assad falls, and he is still not convinced Assad gassed civilians because he would have little to gain by it.

Westmoreland said if the bill passes the House, it will be with mostly Democratic votes to back Obama, while some hawkish Republicans could vote for it to avoid appearances of politicizing the issue.

"That would be political capital that would be very expensive, but I think (Obama) could call (Democrats) and say, "Look, this is not making me look very good,' " Westmoreland told the AJC.

Georgia's House members from both parties range from noncommittal to firmly against strikes. In a typical missive, Democratic U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop of Albany said in a statement Thursday that he would not make up his mind until after a classified members' briefing Monday.

"While I applaud the president's efforts to reach out to Congress," Bishop said, "any proposal to be voted upon should enumerate clear-cut objectives, should be thoroughly debated, and should keep in mind the full consequences of increased military action in the Middle East."

The House is typically closer to the passions of the public, which leans against a new military engagement.

A Washington Post/ABC poll taken last weekend found 59 percent of respondents opposed to strikes, with 36 percent in favor. A Pew Research Center poll found 48 percent against and 29 percent in favor. In both cases, the opposition crossed party lines.

Chambliss has told military brass and administration officials that Obama must speak to the American people from the Oval Office to explain his plan. The administration has held numerous briefings for members of Congress but has not adequately courted the public, Chambliss said.

"This is not engaging in another war, but just the thought of engaging in a military action -- another military action in the Middle East -- is not very popular," he said. "And it's not going to be popular at all until the president comes to the American people and makes his case."

Chambliss also backed the last major congressional use of force vote, giving President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq. And while a vote was never taken on the U.S. intervention in Libya in 2011, Chambliss applauded its outcome and the partisanship the Obama administration formed with other international powers in reaching that end.

As the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Chambliss possesses a higher level of access to the intelligence community in Washington that the panel oversees. He said that in Syria, the evidence that Assad's military used chemical weapons on his own people is unequivocal, and for the U.S. not to respond would only embolden Iran and North Korea to violate international law in similar ways.

As for the military plans, Chambliss said military leaders have prepared three options for Obama to choose from, none of which involve ground troops. The aim is to punish Assad for the chemical attack, damage his military and limit his ability to use the weapons again.

Chambliss said that while some senators seek his expertise as a leader on intelligence matters, he's not going to give his colleagues the hard sell in favor of intervention.

"I'm going to be one who is looked to because of the crucial intelligence piece involved in this," Chambliss said. "I will be expressing my opinion as to what I'm going to do and why I'm going to do it. But I'm not going to be twisting arms."

Everyone agrees the Syria vote -- coupled with Congress' ongoing budget drama -- will make for heady times next week on Capitol Hill.

"If you got a pair of asbestos britches, you best put "em on," Westmoreland said he told colleagues. "Because it's going to get hot up here."


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