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Iraq Hawks Abandon War In Syria Debate, Despite Better Evidence

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama got ambushed by an old enemy when he tried to push a resolution through Congress to bomb Syria: the Iraq war.

Obama likely hoped for more support before mounting his stalled bid to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for allegedly gassing his own population. But the commander-in-chief ran into a thicket of opposition, especially from one bloc of voters who might have been expected to back an attack: dozens of lawmakers who voted for war in Iraq in 2002 based on flimsy intelligence.

Instead, many of them said no -- and pointed to Iraq and "weariness" with war stemming from the presidency of George W. Bush.

Consider the circumstances: The case for war in Iraq was based on unverified claims from exiles, extrapolations of grainy photos that suggested Saddam Hussein could have weapons of mass destruction, disputed claims that Al Qaeda was in the country, and phony connections to 9/11.

Nearly all of it proved false.

In Syria, the actual use of chemical weapons has been horribly on display. The Syrian government has even acknowledged it possesses chemical arms, although Assad has denied allegations from the United States and international community that he used them to gas more than 1,400 of his own civilians.

And yet, of the 115 lawmakers who voted for the Iraq War, 43 are leaning towards opposing an authorization to use military force against the Assad regime. Just 25 are leaning in favor. Attitudes among the 77 lawmakers who voted against Iraq are split down the middle -- with 18 leaning no on Syria and 17 leaning yes.

The Huffington Post asked several lawmakers on Capitol Hill why they believe the war in Iraq received a much warmer reception in 2003 than the request for limited military action in Syria has gotten in the past week.

The answers boiled down to: "Well, this is just different." And many lawmakers are just plain tired of war, as are their constituents.

Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), who voted for war in Iraq, summed it up succinctly on his way to hear Obama make his case for an attack on Syria Tuesday.

"I think they're different," Boozman said, suggesting that all the military strife since 2003 has soured the mood for war. "I think that Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, probably makes a difference."

"I think that there's a weariness. That and most people just think, 'Is it really going to make a difference?'" said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is leaning against a Syria strike but once justified the Iraq war by making the debunked claim that the country was a safe haven for terrorists.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said the premise of the Iraq War, which he voted for, was based on a "worldwide intelligence failure" on Hussein's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. "Interestingly enough, Saddam thought he had them," he added. Hussein, in fact, repeatedly denied that the Iraqi regime had weapons of mass destruction.

Roberts did not explain what the intelligence failures in 2002 had to do with Syria, and he maintained that it is clear the Assad regime not only possesses chemical weapons, but also used them. Regardless of the better evidence, the Kansas representative said he would vote against a resolution authorizing military force because he found the Obama administration's plan to simply be a "slap on the wrist" that will ultimately prove ineffective.

"There's no question about the horrible situation where you have a murderous dictator who gassed his own people," Roberts told HuffPost. "But show me a dictator of this type who changes his mind based on a slap on the wrist. This is not a robust effort ... I don't think it's going to change any behavior on [Assad's] part. He will still be there."

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), who was governor of Nebraska at the start of the Iraq war but later became Bush's secretary of agriculture, insisted that the case for Iraq appeared stronger. The fact that much of the Iraq intelligence proved false is part of what's making lawmakers nervous, he said.

"Everybody was concerned about Iraq," said Johanns, who is leaning against the Syria resolution. "You had Colin Powell, front and center: 'Here's what we have, compelling evidence.' You had Democrats lining up to speak about this compelling evidence, that we were justified in going into Iraq. So I think everybody is very timid these days about intelligence and how far that takes you."

Pressed on the demonstrated existence of chemical weapons in Syria, Johanns reached back to a 1988 gas attack by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds.

"Saddam used weapons against his own people. That was pretty compelling," Johanns said referring to an incident 15 years before the Iraq invasion. He didn't say why the recent videotaped chemical attacks were not as compelling.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she was one of the last Republicans to support the Iraq War resolution and only did so after she received a personal phone call from then-Secretary of State Colin Powell the night before the vote.

"Colin Powell made the argument, ironically, that the best possibility of avoiding the war was a strong vote to go to war, and that that might bring Saddam Hussein to the peace table," Collins told HuffPost. "Obviously that did not happen." Some supporters of striking Syria, such as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), are making the same argument, saying a resolution is spurring diplomacy.

Collins is leaning against authorizing war this time, and seems to feel burned by Iraq. The Maine Republican said that prior to the Iraq invasion, she read intelligence from both the United States and Britain concluding that the regime had weapons of mass destruction. The eventual discovery that the intelligence had been false continues to loom over lawmakers as they consider military intervention in Syria, Collins added.

"That experience has made all of us question intensely the intelligence we've been provided this time," she said. "As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I've spent countless hours asking tough questions of the intelligence community and reading the intelligence assessments."

Al Qaeda once again factors into lawmakers' decision to get involved, although this time the group hasn't been linked to the dictator under fire. Al Qaeda-linked groups have been operating alongside some of the rebel forces in the country, prompting many to buy into Assad's claim that a U.S. strike against Syria "will support Al Qaeda."

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who voted for the Iraq War because he felt Bush was "a magnificent wartime president," said he had no doubt Assad was behind a chemical weapons attack.

But he argued that the Syrian opposition are enemies of the U.S. because of their ties to Al Qaeda, going so far as to suggest a vote against military force on Sept. 11 to send a message.

"How can it be any clearer? That's the perfect day to do it," Culberson told reporters last week. "They need to defeat it to honor the victims of 9/11. We will not give aid and comfort to the psychopaths that carried out the 9/11 attack."

Backers of a strike on Syria find the new reluctance troubling and somewhat ironic.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) announced Monday that she supports military intervention in Syria and specifically drew to a contrast with the Iraq War -- which she voted against -- when explaining her decision.

"I was one of 19 senators who voted against going to war in Iraq. I did vote after 9/11 to use lethal action against the Taliban," Mikulski said in a Senate floor speech. "But when it came to the Iraq War, as a member of the intelligence committee, I'd reviewed these briefs and I didn't believe Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons, so I voted 'no,' and I was right."

"But now this time is different," she continued, echoing the phrases of some opponents, but with the benefit of being able to point to a concrete difference. "I truly believe, after extensive briefings and the evidence that has been outlined to members of the intelligence committee, I am satisfied that, indeed, chemical weapons were used in Syria, and I am satisfied that the Assad regime gave the order to do so."

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), shortly after Obama met with the Democratic caucus on Tuesday, said there are "three or four major differences between Iraq and Syria."

"One, this is because of use of chemicals, well-established. Two, no troops on the ground. Three, limited duration. So this is a different type of a situation, and I think once the public understands that and the consequences of inaction, that there will be greater understanding," he said.

For South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a consistent hawk, the comparisons to Iraq are misguided, and perhaps even disingenuous.

"I just think war-weary people [are] looking for a reason not to get involved in the Mid East. Because the evidence here is absolutely overwhelming. It's not even a debate," Graham said.

"I just think there's a war-weariness that's real," he said, adding that his colleagues should not draw on the failures in Iraq for their opposition to a Syria fight.

"Here's what we can't do, is over-learn Iraq," Graham said. "The lesson of Iraq is not to abandon threats. The lessons of 9/11 -- the 12th anniversary is [Wednesday]. What were those lessons? That when you allow safe havens to form for Al Qaeda, you'll regret it. When you allow bad people like the Taliban or Assad to get control of lethal means, you'll regret it. The lessons of 9/11 to me are get ahead of problems. The lessons of Iraq are to understand them."

Simply turning against the use of force because of the flaws in Iraq, Graham argued, is just as dangerous as any worry raised by opponents of Syria strikes. "I think we're almost wiping out the lessons of 9/11 because of this fixation of not having another Iraq."

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