WASHINGTON — As an increasing number of African-American lawmakers voice dissent over the Obama administration’s war plans in Syria, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus has asked members to “limit public comment” on the issue until they are briefed by senior administration officials.
A congressional aide to a caucus member called the request “eyebrow-raising,” and said the request was designed to quiet dissent while shoring up support for President Barack Obama’s Syria strategy.
The caucus, a crucial bloc of more than 40 votes the White House likely needs to authorize a military strike in Syria, is scheduled to be briefed by White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice on Monday. Until then, caucus chairwoman Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, has asked colleagues to “limit public comment until [they] receive additional details,” Fudge spokeswoman Ayofemi Kirby told Foreign Policy magazine.
When asked if the White House requested the partial gag order, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said “the administration is reaching out to all members to ensure they have the information they need to make an informed judgment on this issue.” Kirby said it was her boss’s request and was aimed at keeping members informed rather than silencing anti-war members.
In recent days, a number of black lawmakers from Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., to Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., to Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., have expressed skepticism over the administration’s plan to wage a surgical military strike in Syria. [Editor’s note: Sixth District Rep. James E. Clyburn Jr., on Aug. 30, said “What’s the rush?” for an attack against Syria, adding that it should be “a well-defined mission before we embark on it.”]
Lee, who remains opposed to a Syrican intervention, said, “We must learn the lessons of the past. Lessons from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and others.” Rangel told FP last week:
“If I felt for one minute that my nation was in danger, and I’m 83, I would volunteer and do something to protect her, But I’ll be damned if I see anything worth fighting for.”
Last week, Lee circulated a letter signed by 64 Democrats, including many members of the caucus, demanding congressional authorization for a strike in Syria.
“The Syria vote is splitting the party and from the CBC point of view, it’s very sensitive,” said the aide. “I think where they were coming from is ‘OK, I know you’re against military engagement, however, before you go public opposing involvement, wait and give us some time to convince you why we need to support the president.’ ”
Despite the request, some caucus members have felt compelled to let constituents know where they stand on an issue consuming the public’s attention.
“It’s my obligation to speak out and say what my thought process is,” Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., a member of the caucus and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told FP. “I think it’s important for me to step forward and make some statements. These are very personal matters.”
Meeks said he’s currently undecided on Syria and wants to see the White House build an international coalition before he authorizes a strike. “This is an international violation, therefore it it needs an international response,” he said. “We don’t have NATO, we don’t have the Arab League, we don’t have the U.N.”
While Meeks remains open to White House arguments, others say they could never be convinced of another war in the Middle East. “Enough is enough,” said Rangel. “I don’t see how I could be persuaded.”
“The president promises a military operation in Syria of limited scope and duration,” Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said this week. “But the Assad regime would have a say in what happens next.”
If a resolution to authorize military force fails to pass in the House, it will likely be due to an odd pairing of conservative and libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats, including Congressional Black Caucus members. When asked if his constituents had any appetite for a war with Syria, Rangel replied bluntly, “In answer to your question: Hell no.”
John Hudson is a columnist for Foreign Policy magazine.