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In deep-blue Maryland, deep misgivings about another war

ElectionsProtestArmed ForcesBarack Obama

He knocked on doors in Ohio for President Barack Obama's campaign last year and is active in Maryland's Democratic Party, but Dave Kunes nevertheless opposes the president on what has become the central issue of his second term: whether to launch a military strike in Syria.

Kunes, a 24-year-old Silver Spring resident, joined several dozen protesters who rallied in Rockville and Ellicott City on Wednesday to deliver the message that even in Democratic Maryland — where six in 10 voted to re-elect Obama last year — there are deep misgivings about U.S. involvement in another Middle East war.

"We've always had President Obama's back. … Millions of people like me helped him win his nomination," said Kunes, president of the Montgomery County Young Democrats. "But it's our hope that he will reverse course."

As Congress prepares to vote on a resolution in coming days authorizing Obama to attack Syria, lawmakers are being pressed hard by administration officials to support military intervention on moral grounds and in the name of national security. Obama says the strike is intended to punish Syrian leader Bashar Assad for a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds, including women and children.

But Maryland lawmakers are also hearing an earful from voters, most of whom oppose action.

Polls show more Americans oppose U.S. military strikes in Syria than support them. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday found that nearly six in 10 nationwide are against airstrikes.

Some Maryland lawmakers, meanwhile, report being flooded with calls. Additional anti-war rallies are planned at congressional offices this week.

About two dozen people held signs outside Rep. Chris Van Hollen's district office in Rockville on Wednesday and then delivered a letter to his staff. Several of them, including Kunes, said they are ardent supporters of both Obama and Van Hollen, but are dismayed by the stances both have taken on this issue.

"We knocked on doors, we worked hard and we were so proud to have played a part" in Obama's election, said Bob Stewart, executive director of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1994, a union representing county workers. "We are still proud of him, but we have disagreements … that have to be aired."

Van Hollen, part of the Democratic leadership in the House, has emerged as an important voice in the debate over Syria after he drafted a military resolution that is far more limited than what Obama initially proposed. Van Hollen's proposal would restrict military action to a single round of strikes unless Assad used chemical weapons again.

It also would clearly prohibit the administration from sending troops into the country.

"The risks of doing nothing are very high," said Van Hollen, who was a staff member for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1988 when lawmakers debated how to respond to the use of chemical weapons by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Van Hollen traveled to the Iraq-Turkey border that year to investigate the use of chemical weapons.

"I've always believed that if the U.S. and the international community had taken stronger action at that time, Saddam Hussein would not have engaged in all these reckless actions afterward, including the invasion of Kuwait," Van Hollen said.

Doing nothing, he said, "would be an invitation to Assad to simply escalate his use of poison gas."

As a half-dozen peace activists crowded into the Ellicott City district office of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, an aide to the congressman, Amy Stratton, told them: "I think you're preaching to the choir."

Stephen A. Buff, a retired federal employee from Columbia, told Stratton that a military strike on Syria in the absence of an imminent threat to the United States would violate international law, inflict more violence on a battered nation and likely have unforeseen consequences.

"It's a crisis," Buff said. "But that doesn't mean there aren't many positive ways to address the crisis. War, of course, is the most mindless of them."

Cummings, speaking between briefings on Wednesday, said he was gathering information before making a decision on his vote.

The Baltimore Democrat said he has questions about the kind of attack the U.S. would mount, its objectives, the risk of civilian deaths, and how Assad would respond.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "I'm not leaning one way or the other, because I don't have enough information."

Cummings said more than 95 percent of the people who have contacted his office on the issue say they oppose a U.S. attack.

"The people who showed up today," he said, "their message is consistent with what we've been getting on the phone.

"Now it may be that they're more zoned in on it. Maybe a lot of people aren't paying attention to it, so they're not expressing an opinion on it. But I know everywhere I go — shopping centers, gas stations — I have not personally heard one person say we should go, there should be a strike on Syria. Not one."

Perhaps because of that, most Maryland lawmakers — nine of 10 of whom are Democrats — are wading into the debate carefully. Sen. Ben Cardin, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was among the first lawmakers to cast a vote on the issue Wednesday. He supported the Senate resolution, which was approved by the committee 10-7. That measure would allow limited military action for up to 90 days and prohibit the use of ground troops.

"America does not want to go to war," Cardin said in a statement. "Congress has no intention of authorizing a war, let alone another long and costly war in the Middle East."

But, he added, "for the sake of America's national security and the stability of the region, we cannot turn a blind eye to this heinous act."

Authorizing military action has won support from both Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The full Senate is expected to take up the measure early next week. Maryland's other senator, Barbara A. Mikulski, is undecided on how she will vote, a spokeswoman said.

Mikulski, Cardin and Cummings all opposed the 2002 resolution that authorized President George W. Bush to invade Iraq. The only other member of the delegation at that time who is still in office, Southern Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, supported the Iraq resolution.

In a statement Wednesday about Syria, Hoyer said Congress "should authorize limited, but decisive, action that leaves no doubt that the use of such weapons will be met with grave consequences."

Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican and the only military veteran representing the state in Congress, is the only Maryland lawmaker who has said that "at this point" he would not support military intervention.

The Iraq war resolution hangs heavily over the Syrian debate, in part because so many lawmakers were later criticized for supporting it. The anti-war protesters Wednesday repeatedly noted that it was Obama who in 2008 criticized his then-rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for supporting legislation to invade Iraq.

"The most significant difference … in that long-ago primary is that he had opposed the Iraq war and she supported it," Stewart said. "We've seen this movie before."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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