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Posted at 10:25 a.m. on Sept. 4, 2013
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., was one of 23 senators who voted against authorizing the Iraq War in 2002. Now, as the senator in charge of appropriating funds for the government’s defense programs, Durbin is in a unique spot: He’s an ally to President Barack Obama, the controller of his military purse and a general opponent of protracted war.
In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday, Durbin took time to differentiate the military action he voted against in Iraq from the action he supported in Afghanistan. (“A clear response to 9/11,” he said. “I still believe it was the right thing to do.”) The moral imperative distinction likely will be important for Durbin as he moves toward backing Obama and supporting an authorizing resolution. In his first statement over the weekend on the recent developments in Syria, he called the actions of the Assad regime a “moral outrage.” On Tuesday, he spoke of the gravity of the choice to authorize the military force he now is responsible for funding.
“I take this very seriously. I understand this president. I understand his values. But I take it very seriously that the language be as precise as possible when it comes to this whole question of expanding this whole mission into something much larger, something that would engage us in a new level of warfare,” Durbin said, prompting Secretary of State John Kerry to say he would work with Durbin and his former Senate colleagues on acceptable language.
Durbin added he wanted to ensure that any resolution “does not expand our authority beyond what is necessary.” The new draft Senate resolution attempts to address those concerns by limiting military action to 90 days and prohibiting boots on the ground.
He also wanted to know about support from other Arab countries for American involvement in Syria; Kerry deferred answering until a closed session later this week.
Given that the administration has not made its plans for engagement in Syria public or formal, it’s difficult to say how critical Durbin’s role might be in helping to aid its efforts. But the sequester has reduced the government’s discretionary defense budget, and with Congress needing to approve another spending bill by the month’s end, the next few weeks could be complicated by further military commitments abroad. Durbin’s support of engagement likely would be essential if appropriators need to find more funding for Syria. In his statement Saturday, as well his remarks Tuesday, Durbin was one of several voices pushing to make sure troops would not be sent to fight on the ground in the war-torn country.
“In my conversations and briefings over the last few days, one thing has been made clear: no U.S. troops will be committed to fight in Syria. We have ended the war in Iraq and are winding down the war in Afghanistan — the longest war in our nation’s history. The cost of human lives and treasure to our country over the last 12 years of war has been overwhelming,” Durbin said in the statement. “If we can do something to discourage Assad and others like him from using chemical weapons without engaging in a war and without making a long-term military commitment of the United States, I’m open to that debate.”