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Arkansas Delegation Divided on Syria

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Location: Little Rock, AR

By Peter Urban

As the Obama administration continues to make the case for a limited military strike against the Syrian government in response to its reported use of chemical weapons, Arkansas lawmakers were divided Tuesday on the issue.

Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, said on Monday that he believed that "effective and decisive" action against Syria is needed because its use of chemical weapons posed a national security issue.

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, said Tuesday in separate telephone interviews that they would vote against authorizing any military intervention in Syria at this time.

Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said Tuesday that the use of chemical weapons is an "indefensible" cruelty but expressed some skepticism over military intervention given the soft support such action has received from allies -- in particular the British Parliament, which voted against participating.

"Before we commit America's men, women and resources and involve ourselves in the conflict, I believe it is imperative for the president to clearly define the nation's interests, ensure that we have coalition support and make his case before both Congress and the American people," Womack said in a statement.

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, issued statements on Tuesday saying that they still have questions about authorizing military action against Syria.

President Obama on Saturday asked Congress to vote on authorizing a limited military strike against the Syrian government, asserting that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's regime used chemical weapons against its own people on Aug. 21.

Classified briefings on the issue were held on Sunday and again on Tuesday for members of Congress. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Jack Dempsey also testified Tuesday before a Senate committee on Syria.

Earlier in the day, President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met with more than a dozen congressional leaders to make the case for intervention. Obama spoke publicly for six minutes summarizing his case that Syria "should be held to account" for using chemical weapons against international law.

"I made a clear decision that America should take action," Obama said.

Unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, Obama said he was seeking a "limited" response that does not include "boots on the ground."

A national survey conducted over the weekend by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans believe that Assad used chemical weapons but few favor conducting air strikes against Syria in response.

By 48 percent to 29 percent, more Americans oppose conducting air strikes against Syria than support U.S. military action, according to the Pew survey of 1,000 adults.

Overall, just 32 percent of Americans say Obama has explained clearly why the U.S. should launch military air strikes against Syria while 48 percent say he has not explained the reasons clearly enough.

Cotton posted a statement on his official blog on Tuesday saying that he has "virtually no doubt" that Bashar al-Assad's regime used chemical weapons on August 21 as the Obama administration has stated. He also encouraged constituents to read a publicly released assessment of the situation posted online.

Cotton plans to attend a House Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Wednesday where Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey are scheduled to testify on Syria. He attended classified briefings Sunday and Tuesday in Washinton, D.C., on the subject.

Boozman did not attend the briefing but participated in a conference call with Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice. Griffin plans to attend a classified briefing next Monday. Both are skeptical of authorizing any intervention in Syria.

"I think it is good that the president wants to put it to a vote to get authorization for a limited strike but today I would vote against it," Boozman said in a telephone interview. "I haven't heard a clear plan."

In particular, Boozman said the president needs to articulate what actions he plans to take and how those actions will be followed up to achieve a specific goal.

"A plan has to involve more than simply dropping bombs. We need to know how it helps our interests and the interests of the oppressed Syrian people," Boozman said.

Griffin, in a separate telephone interview, said that there is near universal opposition among his constituents to military intervention in Syria.

"The president has a steep climb to convince people that blowing some stuff up is actually going to change anything of consequence," he said.

Griffin said that while he is willing to listen he is now a "strong lean no" against granting any military action against Syria at this time because he has not heard a succinct and persuasive argument that it is in our national interest to do so.

"It's the president's responsibility -- with all his resources -- to come up with a clear path of what he wants to do and why he wants to do it. I don't believe he has demonstrated that," Griffin said. "But, I will withhold my judgment until after I receive a briefing on Monday."

Pryor and Crawford attended classified briefings on Sunday but were not convinced of the need for military intervention.

"I continue to believe it is imperative for the administration to explore and pursue alternatives to immediate unilateral military action," Crawford said in a statement after the briefing.

Pryor also issued a statement saying many questions should be answered before taking action against Syria.

"First, the president should present a clear interest for the U.S. to get involved. Second, he should articulate an end state. Third, he should get the approval of Congress. Finally, he should have the support of a broad international coalition," Pryor said.

Womack plans to attend briefings next week when he returns to Washington after the August recess.


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