West Palm Beach representative torn over 'agonizing' Syria decision

WASHINGTON — Rep. Lois Frankel was at the White House listening to the case for military strikes against Syria when the vice president broke the news: President Barack Obama was changing direction to pursue a diplomatic solution.

Relief washed over Frankel, a Democrat from West Palm Beach who had been deeply conflicted.

The feeling didn't last.

If the attempt at diplomacy fails, Frankel knows she will face the agonizing decision again. And even if a deal to strip Syria of chemical weapons materializes, Congress could be asked to vote on strikes as a backup.

So Frankel continues to grapple with her antiwar convictions, a loyalty to the president and what she views as a duty to study the facts, many of them classified, not just public opinion. As a Jew, she feels a special tug, the gassing of Syrians stirring memories of the Holocaust.

"It's agonizing," she said in an interview. "I have not stopped thinking about Syria since the moment the whole thing erupted and the president said he was going to come to Congress. I feel like I'm possessed."

A freshman lawmaker serving in the minority is a speck in Washington's power grid, but on this decision, Frankel could matter greatly as one of the undecided votes. Beyond that, her dilemma illuminates larger truths about the problem Obama faces — as of now, he would likely lose the vote — and the intense pressure lawmakers are under, from lobbying by the administration to overwhelming opposition in their districts.

"I really and truly would like to stand behind my president," Frankel said. "But I have come to the conclusion that I'll be doing my job whether I can stand behind him or I can say, 'Mr. President, I think you are making a mistake.' "

Frankel, a sociable 65-year-old who had a long stint as a state legislator and then as mayor of West Palm Beach, was elected to Congress in a Democratic-leaning district in 2012. She has voted with her party 94 percent of the time. But Syria presents a unique dynamic, with Obama, an Iraq War critic, now prosecuting a case for military intervention.

During a conference call with nearly 7,500 constituents Wednesday night, Frankel heard mostly opposition.

"The United States does not have to solve this problem," said a woman, Kay, from West Palm Beach. "I'm sorry for Obama. I voted for him twice, but he got himself into this mess, and let's hope diplomacy can work some wonders."

Jeffrey from Fort Lauderdale said that Syria poses no threat to this country and that military action would be costly. "We have tremendous problems here at home."

Callers were polled whether the United States should proceed with strikes if diplomacy fails. Just 17 percent said yes.

Frankel thanked them for their views but did not reveal her own. "If I had decided no by now, I wouldn't tell you," she said in the interview, insisting she was still undecided. "I want the president to have as much leverage as possible going into those (diplomatic) talks. Why give Russia or Syria any reason to doubt that Obama would use force?"

She can argue both sides.

For: A long-standing international condemnation of the use of chemical weapons and the signal it would send for the United States to let their use go unchecked.

Against: "We have a country that is war-fatigued. I'm concerned about the potential of a slippery slope. Everyone can say no boots on the ground, but you don't know. One thing can lead to another.

"I can say this very clearly, I have come into this Congress with an antiwar bias," said Frankel, whose son served in the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I do not want to send anybody else's child to war. With that said, I take my responsibility very serious. I can't just say, 'No, I'm never going to authorize military action.' "

She said she respects public opinion but feels compelled by the classified documents she has seen, the videos of Syrian gas victims writhing in agony. She has consulted with the Brookings Institution and met with an expert on Syria. She has sat in on classified hearings, participated in conference calls.

But nothing — not even Obama's address to the nation Tuesday night — has pushed her off the fence.

News organizations spent days after Obama declared he would ask Congress for advice lining up the votes for and against action. The latest Washington Post count shows 162 House members against, 101 leaning no, 25 in favor and 145 undecided.

Obama, whose chances are only somewhat better in the Democrat-controlled Senate, desperately needs that last column to swing his way and has embarked on the most aggressive lobbying effort of his time in office. Frankel outlined the effort, including the invite she got to visit the White House on Tuesday, but said, "There is no strong-arming."

She also has been contacted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful lobbying group that has often disagreed with Obama but is now a sudden ally. Teams of AIPAC lobbyists took to Capitol Hill this week, pressing a concern that if Syria is not punished, its ally Iran could feel emboldened to target Israel.

Frankel isn't swayed by that, contending international sanctions keep Iran in check, but she acknowledged the emotional pull of the Holocaust comparisons. The Obama administration says more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed by poisonous gas.

Frankel also looks at the 100,000 or so people killed before that in conventional ways. "It's a very complicated thought process. I have to say to myself, how can that not matter and this does?"

Through it all, the only certainty is uncertainty. "Even if I had to make the decision, I wouldn't know if it's right. Only time will tell," she said. "My own feeling is there is going to be a bad outcome no matter what we do."

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, says she’s still undecided on voting whether to authorize a Syria strike, although the public and the president are pressuring her in opposite directions. “I have not stopped thinking about Syria since the moment the whole thing erupted and the president said he was going to come to Congress,” she said. “I feel like I’m possessed.”

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, says she’s still undecided on voting whether to authorize a Syria strike, although the public and the president are pressuring her in opposite directions. “I have not stopped thinking about Syria since the moment the whole thing erupted and the president said he was going to come to Congress,” she said. “I feel like I’m possessed.”

West Palm Beach representative torn over 'agonizing' Syria decision 09/12/13 [Last modified: Thursday, September 12, 2013 11:38pm]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...