It’s not just that most voters aren’t paying attention to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s massacring his own people, according to polls. Few members of Congress are either. And who have embraced the issue admit that they’re not hearing much support among their colleagues or their constituents.
“There are not a lot of members on planes going home right now trying to figure out what they’re going to say if they get asked about Syria,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign committee, told POLITICO Friday afternoon. “You’re not going to get a big crowd at the Syria working group.”
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Thursday, the White House announced it had confirmed the Syrian army used chemical weapons months after the fact, and announcing Thursday that military and political aid would be headed to the rebels without specifying what kind, how much, or when.
Israel, who introduced a House resolution calling for Assad to be tried for war crimes at the International Criminal Court, said he’s surprised how little anything about the two-year old rebellion against Assad has resonated with the public.
“When I go home to New York I don’t hear as much about as I would think,” Israel said. “I don’t hear from my colleagues that it’s coming up in town hall meetings.”
That’s true across the country.
“I do town hall meetings regularly, and I can’t say I ever have people ask me about Syria,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). “I get lots of questions about Benghazi, but not Syria.”
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Obama himself has only referred in broad terms to Assad needing to go, and the new aid to the rebels that the White House portrayed as a significant shift was announced via a conference call held by a deputy national security adviser. On Friday, the White House promised the president would speak more to Americans about the administration’s plans for Syria “in the coming days” — while in Europe for the G-8 conference.
The general disinterest gives Obama the freedom to make decisions on Syria without domestic political pressure, Chaffetz said.
“He has maximum flexibility,” Chaffetz added. “You want to do what’s best for the United States of America and the world, but if things continue to go poorly and the more the atrocities are exposed, that happened on President Obama’s watch.”
What attention the issue does generate has tended to focus on on resisting getting involved in another war, especially one without a clear connection to American interests.
“With Iraq … people understood or believed in their gut that Saddam Hussein was a really bad guy,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who represents a military-heavy district and co-sponsored the international court legislation with Israel. “We’d been at war with him before. Afghanistan, they understood completely because we’d been attacked from there. Here, they see no direct connection to the United States.”
And Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.), the most hawkish Senate Democrat, said he has to bring up Syria to get input on it from his constituents.