An Antiwar Activist Searches for a Way to Support a Strike on Syria

Like many Democrats, Iraq opponent and Vietnam protestor Gerald Connolly now wants to back President Obama’s call to attack.

Protesters against U.S. intervention in Syria march during a demonstration in Boston, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. 
National Journal
Ben Terris
Sept. 5, 2013, 3:55 a.m.

It was 1968. His her­oes Bobby Kennedy and Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. were dead. The Vi­et­nam War raged on. Ger­ald Con­nolly, a nat­ive of Bo­ston, now a House mem­ber from Vir­gin­ia, walked to Fen­way Park to listen to folk and blues mu­sic from Pete See­ger and B.B. King, and to listen as pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Eu­gene Mc­Carthy pledged to end the war if elec­ted. A self-de­scribed “avid act­ive op­pon­ent of the Vi­et­nam War,” Con­nolly counseled con­scien­tious ob­ject­ors on their rights and op­tions. Hear­ing Mc­Carthy speak gave him just a glim­mer of hope. Then, he nev­er made it out of the primary.

“When Nix­on won, it was tre­mend­ously dis­ap­point­ing,” Con­nolly says. “When we learned his secret plan to end the war was to ex­pand it, that’s something that I’ll nev­er for­get.”

All this is to say that Con­nolly has long been an an­ti­war Demo­crat. But now, after rev­el­a­tions that Syr­ia’s Bashar al-As­sad used chem­ic­al weapons against his own people, Con­nolly finds him­self be­set with “one of the gravest” votes he’s had to make since 2008, when he was elec­ted to the House from his Fair­fax-area dis­trict. Con­nolly must de­cide wheth­er he can sup­port cast­ing a vote that could launch mis­siles in­to a coun­try that has not been de­clared an en­emy of the United States. Vot­ing no means go­ing against his pres­id­ent — the man whose can­did­acy spurred the turnout that helped pro­pel Con­nolly to of­fice.

“The ideo­lo­gic­al base of our party is strongly an­ti­war, and an­ti­mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion,” Con­nolly told Na­tion­al Journ­al on Wed­nes­day as de­bate over Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­quest raged on Cap­it­ol Hill. “And there are reas­ons for that.”

But Con­nolly, like many Demo­crats at the mo­ment, isn’t a def­in­ite “no” when it comes to the vote. While he says he re­mains un­de­cided, he and Demo­crat Rep. Chris Van Hol­len of Mary­land are in the midst of draft­ing a res­ol­u­tion for a lim­ited strike in Syr­ia. He says he won’t sup­port any­thing “too broad” or that could put boots on the ground, but he feels it’s pos­sible that do­ing noth­ing at all could be the worst pos­sib­il­ity. “There are cer­tainly risks and wor­ries about do­ing something, but are they big enough to pre­clude me from do­ing any­thing?” Con­nolly wondered out loud in a phone in­ter­view. “That’s the struggle.”

And such is the con­flict for many Demo­crats as they head to a vote next week on the mat­ter. A new poll from The Wash­ing­ton Post and ABC News found that six in 10 Amer­ic­ans dis­ap­prove of a strike on Syr­ia. The num­ber among pro­gress­ives is much high­er still at 73 per­cent op­pos­ing, ac­cord­ing to the Pro­gress­ive Change Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. And yet, with Obama call­ing for ac­tion, many Demo­crats are look­ing for a ra­tionale to come on­board and act as a team play­er.

Much of the anti-at­tack sen­ti­ment comes from a pub­lic that has been de­scribed ad nau­seum as “war weary” in re­cent weeks. But Con­nolly says he is try­ing not to think about the wars in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan when mak­ing his de­cision.

“It’s easy for people to make an ana­logy there,” he says. “But I’ve been try­ing to make the case that that’s a com­pletely false ana­logy, though it’s an un­der­stand­able one. It’s fresh in our minds, and we feel burned, but it’s not the same thing.”

It’s im­port­ant to Con­nolly that he fig­ure out a way to draw that dis­tinc­tion, for he be­lieves the ar­gu­ments for go­ing to war in Ir­aq were “com­pletely spe­cious. Either wish­ful think­ing or en­tirely fab­ric­ated.” With re­gard to Syr­ia, Con­nolly is con­fid­ent that chem­ic­al weapons were in fact used. And per­haps biggest for him is his con­vic­tion that Obama is “truly a re­luct­ant war­ri­or,” when it comes to Syr­ia.

“This isn’t a case of a pres­id­ent want­ing to go to war,” he says. “And that’s a big dif­fer­ence.”

Con­nolly is no stranger to for­eign policy. The gradu­ate of the Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment at Har­vard worked on the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee for a dec­ade. His wealthy North­ern Vir­gin­ia dis­trict is home to the largest num­ber of fed­er­al con­tract­ors and gov­ern­ment work­ers in the na­tion. But what would his col­lege-age self say to him now, see­ing an older man not only vot­ing to sanc­tion a mis­sile strike but help­ing to draft a res­ol­u­tion to per­mit it. Con­nolly likes to think he would un­der­stand. “Even when I was protest­ing the Vi­et­nam War, I al­ways made a dis­tinc­tion between be­ing a pa­ci­fist and an an­ti­war act­iv­ist,” he says. “I was nev­er a pa­ci­fist. No war is de­sir­able, but I’d re­cog­nize that some­times ac­tion is ne­ces­sary.”

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