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Udall makes high-profile case against military strikes in Syria

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If there was any doubt where Sen. Tom Udall stood on the use of U.S. military force in Syria – and until a few days ago, there was – he erased it completely on Wednesday.

The New Mexico Democrat, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, voted against a resolution authorizing the U.S. to strike Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In doing so, he became the first Democrat in New Mexico’s congressional delegation to lay his cards on the table with respect to a U.S. military intervention in the war-torn Middle Eastern country.

“I see this potential bombing campaign as a potential next step toward full-fledged war,” he said Tuesday during a Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “We’ve been here before.”

The Tuesday hearing, a day before the official vote, was unusual in that Udall sternly confronted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, his longtime congressional colleague, a fellow Democrat and personal friend.

As a first-term senator and a relatively junior member of the committee, Udall didn’t get to question Kerry until near the end of the hearing. But Twitter quickly lit up as he immediately established himself as the committee’s most vocal Democratic skeptic of the administration’s plan.

Kerry, who I know from personal experience doesn’t like to be challenged on his positions, was irritated by Udall’s assertion that the proposed Syria strike aims simply to “send a message” – and a murky message, at that.

“Let me ask you,” Kerry shot back, “are you going to be comfortable if Assad, as a result of the United States not doing anything, then gases his people yet again and the world says ‘why didn’t the United States act?’ History is full of moments when someone didn’t stand up and act when it made a difference.”

The men also clashed, with Kerry interrupting Udall, about whether the Obama administration had pressured China and Russia enough to get a joint condemnation of Assad – and a possible coalition of force — from the United Nations Security Council. After the hearing Udall told me “the U.S. has been too quick to give up on the U.N. channels.”

“We should be working with them to try to find a solution, instead we’re talking about going it alone,” Udall said. “This undermines credibility abroad and creates the impression, true or not, that the U.S. will be the world’s policeman.”

He also said the notion that the U.S. is doing nothing about Syria is wrong.

“We’re taking a lot of action right now, some of which I can’t talk about (because it’s classified), but I don’t think it’s fair to say the U.S. isn’t doing anything,” Udall said. “We’ve contributed close to a billion dollars in non-lethal aid. Our personnel are over there on the ground in many of these countries trying to find solutions. We have Patriot missile batteries in Turkey and Jordan and we have (invested in) the Iron Dome (missile defense system) in Israel.”

By the way, Udall will be on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to talk Syria this morning.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-7 to approve the Syrian strikes and the full Senate is expected to vote next week, at which time Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat who sits on the intelligence committee will have to take a position. In statements to date, Heinrich has definitely not ruled out supporting Obama on the strikes, but he has not made up his mind, either. Heinrich attended two classified Intelligence Committee hearings last week on the subject of Assad’s use of chemical weapons. I

“I have reviewed a substantial amount of intelligence and it is clear that President Assad’s regime used chemical weapons on a broad scale against civilian non-combatants – even children,” Heinrich said in a statement last week. “Assad has willfully committed war crimes against his own people.”

So, Udall has made his forceful case against U.S. military intervention, and Rep. Steve Pearce, the delegation’s lone Republican, is also on-the-record opposing a U.S. strike on Syria. Here’s what Pearce told me last week:

“I commend the president on his decision to request congressional approval before committing the U.S. to action in Syria,” Pearce said. “I still believe intervention in Syria is a wrong and costly course.”

It’s unclear when the House will vote on the resolution – and even more unclear if it will pass. The Washington Post reported Friday that 184 House members haven’t made up their minds, and 52 senators also remain undecided.

Meanwhile, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, an undecided Democrat, has launched a “Syria Survey” on her website inviting constituents to weigh in. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., is also on the fence. The decision is agonizingly difficult for many members of Congress, some of whom regret voting to authorize war in Iraq a decade ago.

“The use of chemical weapons against innocent people is deeply disturbing, but we must have a serious discussion on how best to address the crisis in Syria,” Lujan said.

E-mail: mcoleman@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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