Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
After weeks of political wrangling, President Barack Obama has taken his case for a military assault on Syria to prime-time America. We speak with a local lawmaker about his reaction to the president’s speech and about how Congress will move forward, even as the president explores one last diplomatic opening to avoid a strike.
- Gerald Connolly Member, U.S. House of Representatives (D-VA, 11th District);
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the National Security Agency to curb or not to curb the expansion of intelligence gathering directed at Americans in the post-9/11 era. But first, last night President Obama made an appeal to America's morals. Facing mounting opposition to a strike against Syria in Congress and deep doubts by Americans that striking Syria for using chemical weapons was the best approach, the president made an emotional case that the U.S. has an innate responsibility to act.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt was a plea that followed an unexpected flurry of diplomatic activity and a proposal by Russia that would potentially shut down a military assault. Now lawmakers must weigh the president's case for a strike with new diplomatic openings, and pressure from their own weary constituents. So what's next on Capitol Hill? Here to give us the latest is Congressman Gerry Connolly. He's a Democrat in the House of Representatives, representing Virginia's 11th District. He joins us by phone. Congressman Connolly, thank you for joining us. Welcome.
MR. GERALD CONNOLLYGreat to be with you, again, Kojo. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIIn 17 minutes last night, the president made his case for why the U.S. must retaliate against Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons in mid-August. You have been one of the more vocal proponents of congressional authorization for a strike on Syria. What do you think of the case that the president made last night?
CONNOLLYI thought it was a very direct, clear, and eloquent statement. And as you said in your introduction, I thought, also, a great deal of emotion, contained emotion, but emotion about this issue. And I thought it was quite effective. Now, you know, the president has asked to put everything on hold here in the Congress, pending this last-minute, possible diplomatic overture from the Russians. And that's proper and I give him credit for pursuing every avenue short of the military avenue to try to resolve this issue.
NNAMDIWe'd like to hear from you. You can call us at 800-433-8850. What was your reaction to President Obama's speech last night? Did the president's speech convince you, if you were a skeptic, that using force might be the right thing to do against Syria after all? 800-433-8850. You can send email to Kojo@wamu.org. Congressman Connolly, opposition to a strike has been solidifying on Capitol Hill, at least that's the way it appeared over the past week or so. Did you think last night's speech changed the mood at all?
CONNOLLYI don't know. I really don't know that just yet. I think it's a little early to say. My guess is, though, that, pretty much, opinions have hardened here on Capitol Hill. What has surprised everybody and could change the calculus is this possibility of the Russians and the Syrians switching control of chemical weapons, acknowledging they exist, agreeing to sign the Convention, Syria that is, and handing them over to international -- I think that really caught everyone's attention.
CONNOLLYAnd forced people to think a little bit about, gee, even the threat of military intervention produced that. That maybe the president has something going for him, in terms of his arguments.
NNAMDIWhat have you been hearing from your own constituents over the course of the past week or so? One has to remember that there is a fairly high proportion of military veterans and defense contractors in your district.
CONNOLLYYes. I have been -- well, if you were just adding it up, I think, clearly, the volume of communications to my office is running very heavily negative about any intervention of any kind. However, I will say I find my constituents are pretty sophisticated about this, even those who don't want to really do anything understand, though, that there are consequences for not, you know, leaving a chemical weapons attack unaddressed, and are willing to hear those arguments and to engage in them.
CONNOLLYI've been really impressed with the quality of the dialog, as I'm out and about in my district. I will point out that something, unfortunately, you know, Washington Post coverage of a Town Hall meeting I had chose not to mention at all, which is rather striking. At a Town Hall meeting I had last week with 110 people, I actually put three questions to the audience. I said before I tell you what I think, how about you tell me what you think?
CONNOLLYAnd I gave them the McCain option, you know, double down, robust response, let's use this to tilt the tide in Civil War. Not a single hand of 110 supported that. Then I said, okay, terrible thing, horrible thing. We all agree it was a violation of international law, but what do you want us to do about it. We can't get involved and everything. The best option is to do nothing. About 12 hands. Then, the limited response that I’m trying to work on, even more restrictive than the original White House resolution, 80 hands, 80 in favor.
CONNOLLYNow, I'm not even going to argue that's necessarily representative, but my only point is public opinion may be a little bit more nuanced than the press or polling would suggest.
NNAMDIIn pursuit of that, let's talk a little bit more about the resolution that you and Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen drafted. You now amended it to give a diplomatic opening time to work, but what does your resolution call for? What were those 80 people apparently in favor of?
CONNOLLYThat a resolution, very narrowly crafted, that says, you know, you've got 60 days in which to have a very limited military strike, presumably with Tomahawk missiles, no U.S. troops, no boots on the ground and you can't use this to justify a wider rationale. It can only be used for these two purposes, to retaliate an enforcement of the Convention banning chemical weapons and to deter their future use. That's it. And that's how we tried to draft it.
CONNOLLYNow, we've redrafted it to take into consideration this so-called Russian initiative. And so the new resolution says all that's still on the books, but before we get to that, we're going to give Syria 30 days in which to effectuate this deal. So 30 days in which to sign the Convention, which you said you're willing to do, 30 days in which to hand over control of your chemical weapons, which you've now acknowledged for the first time you've got, to an international authority, and to begin their destruction. If they meet those terms and conditions, there would be no military strike.
NNAMDIOur guest is Gerry Connolly. He's a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He's a Democrat representing Virginia's 11th District. Congressman Connolly, I saw a letter to the editor in the Washington Post today, which caused me to think about asking you about your own philosophy about how you do your job. That letter indicated that despite the nuanced characterization you gave of your constituents, the letter writer seemed to feel that your constituents are overwhelmingly against any kind of military strike.
NNAMDIAnd rather than you "voting your conscious," what you need to do is reflect what your constituents want you to do. How in your own thinking do you make a distinction between reflecting what your constituents want you to do and trying to lead your constituents?
CONNOLLYYou know, it's a fair question. And I think that's a, if you will, a dialectic that every member of Congress faces. I will, by the way, ironically point out that the Washington Post printed a letter from someone who's not my constituent. Who, nonetheless, opined about what someone else's Congressman ought to be doing, but that would require actually looking up where the 11th District is. But, all right, he's entitled to his opinion. I think, upon examination, it's quite a proposition to say every time a member of Congress goes against public opinion in his or her respective district, they ought to resign.
CONNOLLYI mean if that's the system of government we're going to have, then men and women of conscious, men and women of a dissenting opinion, men and women who may be a little bit ahead of public opinion or even a little bit behind, there's no role for them in our representative democracy. I think that's, upon examination, not a principle most of us would want to ascribe to.
CONNOLLYAnd in my case, let me just say, Kojo -- I didn't mean to…
CONNOLLYThis issue, for me, ultimately, very difficult issue. I'm not a hawk. I did not support the Iraq War. I, you know, as a young college student I protested against the Vietnam War and I'm proud of that position, many years later. But in this particular case, this is, for me, a moral issue. It's truly a matter of principle. It's not a matter of cynical politics, otherwise I'd be opposing it because that's easier. But we cannot let stand the use of chemical weapons in light of the fact that we've had a treaty in the books since 1925 saying you can't.
CONNOLLYAnd if we don't do it, who will? And I want to limit it, but I don't want to let it go, otherwise it will become routine in any conflict, that chemical weapons are used going forward in the future.
NNAMDIWell, I want to go to Joe, in Fairfax, Va., who I think will describe himself as a constituent of yours. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOEOh, yes, thank you. Yes. I am a constituent. I am in the 11th District. And I just want to echo, even though the person that wrote the letter to the Post might not have been a constituent, I am and I am one of the strong. I’m not a pacifist or anything like that either. But I'd like to hear Mr. Connolly explain who in the world are we going to be helping by doing this. And if you're referring to treaties that are broken, treaties were broken in Congo, Burundi, Somalia. There are numerous places around the world where more people are killed in just as violent ways and against treaties.
JOEIf you're worried about saving, you know, the president's face in this, that's already been destroyed. It's already been mishandled incredibly. President Putin is showing that, you know, he's the professional and Obama is the amateur in this. And it's just, you know…
NNAMDIBut you're asking an extremely complicated question, Joe. Could you be more specific about what your question is?
JOEWell, I want a rationale from my Representative, other than just the "moral outrage," because that doesn't fly.
NNAMDIOkay. Well, allow me to have him respond. Congressman Connolly?
CONNOLLYWell, you know, I respect the fact that the caller, Joe, has a different point of view, I guess, or a different way of framing the issue. I haven't just outlined a moral issue. I have told you bottom-line for me this really is a moral decision, but that's not the only part of the decision. It's also a matter of international law, which Joe has rebutted. He thinks, you know, well, there are lots of international laws and lots of them get violated, why pick on this one? That's his point of view.
CONNOLLYI happen to believe it's a pretty important principle of international law, but we could argue that and I certainly see where he's coming from.
NNAMDIJoe, thank you very much for your call. I'll got to Tysear, in Washington, D.C. Tysear, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
TYSEARHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. My question is how do we see our relationships with our allies in that region, where they've been asking for something to be done regarding the Algerian issue, and then when the chemical weapons were used they asked for a strong reaction and we were almost going to do it and now we're not going to do it. So you have a lot of allies, including Israel, who supposedly -- it was reported yesterday the prime minister was making his phone calls to Representatives to tell them that they're for the strike.
TYSEARI was just wondering what is the future relationship with our allies who now, all of a sudden, have to deal with the fact -- especially now there's a chatter coming out of Syria that, you know, that they have this diplomatic win and no strike's going to take place.
TYSEARAnd what they're saying -- go ahead.
CONNOLLYWell, it's a good question, but, you know, there are allies and then there are allies. And so I suppose it kind of depends on which allies we're talking about. Are we talking about the United Kingdom? Because their House of Commons voted…
NNAMDII think he's talking about allies specifically in the region, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, I guess, to name two.
TYSEARWell, some of those allies have opined that, you know, they would favor intervention, some have been silent, some of said they can't quite get themselves to support that. So we have allies all over the lot, even in the region. I think probably if you privately polled a lot of those folks, they'd welcome much more robust U.S. intervention. But that's not something I support and that's not something I think the American people support. I think they're probably going to be disappointed that we've held off on any response to this chemical attack.
TYSEARBut on the other hand, if this last chance diplomatic initiative works -- and I certainly hope it does -- so that chemical weapons are no longer controlled by the Syrian government, and they sign on to the Convention and it's verified and enforceable, that will be a step forward in the region and welcomed by all of our allies.
NNAMDIWhat is the timeline that you would see for this all taking place, Congressman Connolly?
CONNOLLYThe resolution we've got would say from the date of enactment of the resolution, Syria has 30 days in which to effectuate that. Now, again, people may want more or less time and I suppose that's absolutely negotiable, but you've got to put a time on it or there's no action-forcing event. There's nothing to encourage the Syrians to ever consummate this agreement.
NNAMDITysear, thank you very much for you call. Gerry Connolly is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He's a Democrat who represents Virginia's 11th District. Congressman Connolly, thank you for joining us.
CONNOLLYIt's great to be back with you, Kojo. And thank you so much for allowing me to try to share a complicated point of view on the air.
NNAMDIAlways good to talk to you. We'll be taking a short break. When we come back, the National Security Agency to curb or not to curb. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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