By Carolyn Lochhead
WASHINGTON — California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer are providing critical support for President Obama’s proposed strike on Syria, bucking what they acknowledge to be strong opposition from Californians.
The two senior Democrats play an outsized role as Obama asks the nation and Congress this week to support an unpopular resolution authorizing military force against the Syrian government for an August chemical weapons attack in that nation’s civil war.
Obama faces stiff headwinds from both parties and the public going into this week’s vote in the Senate.
Feinstein and Boxer joined the Senate in the early 1990s, giving them two decades of seniority, powerful committee positions and a long history in decisions on war. Both premise their support for a strike on Syria on a need to prevent the United States from being seen as a “paper tiger.”
Feinstein chairs the Intelligence Committee, giving her privileged access to inside information on the chemical attacks and intelligence assessments.
Boxer is a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee who last week provided a crucial vote for a war resolution that passed the deeply divided committee by a 10-7 vote.
Iraq war votes
The 2003 invasion of Iraq weighs heavily. Feinstein voted for the 2002 Iraq War resolution, a decision that she now regrets, she told The Chronicle last fall. Boxer voted against the Iraq war.
On Thursday, Feinstein asked the Central Intelligence Agency to compile a DVD showing the effects of chemical weapons attacks on victims in Syria.
She said she intends to provide the graphic display to every senator.
“I saw it this morning, and it was horrendous,” Feinstein told reporters. “We are having that DVD multiplied, and we are going to hand one out to each member of the Senate and possibly members of the House.”
Feinstein said she will be “as helpful as I can” lobbying colleagues. “Certainly they can be undecided up to the vote, but there is a moment of truth to all this,” she said.
At a Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday, Boxer explained her position on Syria because “a lot of people have been asking me, including my own constituents.”
Like Feinstein, Boxer cited images of the victims.
“Children gasping for air, young bodies lined up in a row should shock the world,” Boxer said, urging a response to “Syria’s unspeakable deeds to gas its own people to death.”
Failure to respond would give license to Syrian President Bashar Assad to use chemical weapons again, encourage nuclear-armed North Korea and make it more likely that chemical weapons might be used against the United States or its allies, including Israel, she said.
“How many of us have been … where we see thousands of our troops standing … just a stone’s throw away from North Korea?” Boxer said. “Iran will view us as a paper tiger, when it comes to their nuclear program, and that is dangerous not only for us and our friends but for the world.”
Boxer said she voted for the war in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but opposed Obama’s 2009 military surge, urging a speedier withdrawal from what is now the longest U.S. war.
“I approach the Syria issue in the same way I approached those – with a very heavy heart and a very independent mind,” Boxer said. She said drawing parallels between the invasion of Iraq and military strikes in Syria is “a totally false comparison.”
“Sometimes, the easiest thing to do is to walk away,” she said. “I believe we cannot close our eyes to this clear violation of long-standing international norms. I believe America’s morality, America’s reputation and America’s credibility are on the line.”
Boxer said the Senate’s credibility is on the line too, pointing to a 74-26 Senate vote in 1997 on a chemical-weapons-ban treaty, and an 89-4 vote in 2003 on the Syria Accountability Act, a law that says Syria’s weapons of mass destruction threaten U.S. security. She wrote the measure with former Sen. Rick Santorum, a conservative Pennsylvania Republican and former presidential candidate.
“Shouldn’t the Senate stand behind its words and its actions?” Boxer said.
Feinstein said the “deciding factor” for her was the intelligence on Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
Last fall, she told The Chronicle that she closely read the Bush administration’s intelligence on Iraq, only to find out later “it was bad and it was wrong. That’s one of the reasons I want to see that that never happens again.”
She said Thursday she has searched for similar problems with the Syria intelligence and finds it “conclusive on the fact that these weapons were used.”
Given the evidence, “the rest of it is a judgment call,” Feinstein said. “Once the administration made this call, I think that there is a real need for us to back this up.”
Feinstein and Boxer said Obama is requesting a limited engagement, with no troops.
Feinstein spoke openly about public opposition in California.
“It weighs on me, no question,” Feinstein said. “Every day I get a report on the amount of calls, where they are coming from, what the nature of the argument is, and there is no question that what’s coming in is overwhelmingly negative.”
Still, she said, her constituents “have not seen what I have seen, or heard what I have heard. I like to believe that after 20 years that I have some skills in separating the wheat from the chaff. Knowing where we were when Iraq was considered and where we are with this, I don’t want to see nations use chemical weapons with abandon.”
— Reach Carolyn Lochhead at [email protected]