SEATTLE — U.S. Rep. Adam Smith is a leader on military issues in a comfortably Democratic district – a perfect ally to build support for President Barack Obama's proposal for a military strike in Syria. Yet Smith, like many of his fellow Democrats, remains cautious and uncertain about the idea.
His 2002 vote for the Iraq war is a point of regret. And last year's redistricting plan left Smith representing a far different constituency than he did just months ago. Now, he and many lawmakers are looking at whether diplomacy could yield a solution, averting a vote.
"At this point, I'm undecided," Smith said. "It's an incredibly important vote."
At the end of August, Smith initially said he has "serious questions about the wisdom of military action" in Syria. He again expressed concerns this week while saying he would take as long as he possibly could before making a decision.
Adding to the challenge for Smith is that for years he used to represent some of western Washington's more conservative territories, such as eastern suburbs and areas around Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Due to redistricting, he has since lost much of his military constituents.
In their place, he picked up a chunk of Seattle and a group of voters that generally have a more anti-war bent. Smith's district has become so much more liberal that he likely won't see another viable challenge from a Republican – but he could see one from another Democrat.
Constituents in Smith's district have been expressing wariness about the Syria plan.
He said that caution isn't just about Iraq and Afghanistan but concern that the United States is too often taking up the task of enforcing international norms – even without the support of entities like the United Nations, NATO and the Arab League.
At a coffee shop in central Seattle, just a few blocks from where Obama's campaign had its state headquarters last year, residents who identify as Democrats and Obama supporters expressed qualms about any military action in Syria.
Some were weary of war. Others feared that the country would be dragged deeper into conflict. Others disliked the idea that the U.S. wouldn't have the broad backing of the international community.
Seattle resident Carl Rainey, 69, a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, said he still feels the country made large mistakes with its involvement in Vietnam and the more recent Iraq war. He'd like to see the U.S. avoid military action in Syria.
"We need to find another solution to doing things," Rainey said. In part, he thinks more countries should be involved in discussions about how to handle Syria in order to advance a more united solution.
That potential option gained momentum as leaders discussed the possibility of putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control. Smith said a diplomatic solution like that proposal would be the ideal outcome, but he said the plan is still in its infancy and must be fully vetted.
Smith, a former prosecutor first elected to Congress in 1996, is the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee. He's also been a longtime Obama ally – endorsing the president's first candidacy early in 2007. Last year, Smith won re-election with 72 percent of the vote.
While Smith's district is now mostly comprised of minority constituents and generally supports Obama, it also has a strong anti-war undercurrent. Smith outlined in an interview the competing viewpoints that he's dealing with on the Syria matter.
On one hand, Smith agrees with the White House assessment that chemical weapons were used and the importance of discouraging the proliferation and use of such materials. He said the country's credibility will be damaged if Congress doesn't follow through on Obama's call for action.
But, Smith wondered aloud, is the United States even in a position to hold Syria President Bashar Assad accountable? "It would clearly make him pay a price for doing it, but would that price be sufficient to discourage Iran and to discourage other people from taking similar action?" he said.
Also looming over the issue is Smith's vote from a decade ago that authorized the Iraq conflict.
He said it's absolutely lingering in his mind. For the 2002 vote, Smith said he didn't want to micromanage from the sidelines and wanted to give the commander in chief as many tools as possible to deal with Iraq. Now, he said members of Congress feel more responsibility for the vote.
"I have to be responsible for it," Smith said. "I have to be responsible to my country and my constituents."