Islanders express concern with President’s Syria policy

In August, President Obama took time from his vacation activities and addressed the assembled press pool from his vacation home in Chilmark about the escalating situation in Egypt. — File photo by Barry Stringfellow

Over the course of five presidential vacations and in two elections, President Barack Obama has enjoyed wide support among the residents of Martha’s Vineyard. But conversations with a cross section of Island residents reveals concerns heard in Congress and across the nation about President Obama’s Syria policy and the potential for U.S. military action.

After threatening military action in response to a poison gas attack by the government of President Bashar Assad that left 1,400 people dead, Mr. Obama decided to seek Congressional authorization for a limited military strike on Syria.

Last week, the Senate foreign relations committee approved a resolution that sets a 60-day deadline for the Obama administration to strike in Syria, with the possibility of a 30-day extension, and expressly prohibits the use of U.S. troops on the ground in Syria.

On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put off a scheduled full Senate vote saying it wouldn’t be beneficial to hold the vote while international discussions continue even as Mr. Obama continued a full court public relations press to sway public opinion.

On Tuesday, Russian president Vladimir Putin, Syria’s staunch ally, emerged with a possible deal that could make a vote unnecessary.

With events in play, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle report strong opposition from voters to any military strike. Those sentiments are echoed in conversations on Martha’s Vineyard.

Skeptical selectman

Margaret Serpa has served on the Edgartown board of selectmen for more than 15 years. A member of a large, well-known Edgartown family, the retired high school administrative assistant has always been involved in town affairs.

“I am hesitant to support it [military action],” Ms. Serpa told The Times in a telephone conversation Friday. “I don’t know what type of military action they intend to take and if it is getting us involved over there, I’m not in favor.”

Ms. Serpa said she would like to believe government assurances that there will be no “boots on the ground,” but she is skeptical.

“Here we are trying to end Afghanistan and they say this won’t be as long but we really don’t know, so I am skeptical.”

A tough decision

Fred “Ted” Morgan of Edgartown served as a member of the 82nd Airborne’s 505th parachute infantry regiment and is a veteran of combat jumps in Sicily, Holland, the Battle of the Bulge, and Normandy with a long and distinguished career of town and Island public service that included 31 years on the Edgartown board of selectmen.

“If it was strictly limited to air action, we should do it, but I would never want to get into a land battle like we did in Vietnam and places like that,” Mr. Morgan told The Times Friday. “But that may not be the answer either. It’s just too bad that these people can’t resolve their own problems. They have to depend on other countries to fight their battles.”

Mr. Morgan said there are many outstanding questions and few answers. “Can you wait and see what more is going to happen?” he asked. “Or can you allow people to be gassed and killed by their own people without doing something about it? It’s a tough decision.”

Mr. Morgan agrees with President Obama’s decision to seek approval from the Senate and House of Representatives. “I think they’ve got to be in this together,” he said. “I don’t think the president should make the decision on his own on behalf of the country because you’ve got Congress representing a good part of the country also. If I were the president I’d want to ask Congress.”

Student endorses nonviolence

Sarah Ortlip-Sommers of West Tisbury, 17, is a Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School senior and co-editor of the High School View, the weekly school newspaper.

Sarah said that while it is important to emphasize that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated, she does not support a military strike.

“I personally believe that only nonviolent actions should be taken,” Sarah said in an email to The Times Monday. “I understand that nonviolence can be difficult to achieve and uphold. The United States needs international support in order to ensure Syria does not use chemical weapons in the future and should aspire to set an example for international nonviolence and cooperation.”

She said the option Russia proposed to put Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons under international control to be eventually destroyed offers a possible solution. “I believe this would be a better option than a military strike, as it is exactly the type of diplomatic resolution I would like to see,” she said. “This crisis is an opportunity to help unite nations in the pursuit of making the world a safer place.

“Any agreement should include international monitoring for overseeing weapons use and human-rights violations. This is primarily a human-rights issue. Actions are necessary to prevent more human-rights violations in Syria and the rest of the world. Syria is one of only five nations to neither sign nor ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. Pressure should be put on Syria to sign and ratify this convention.”

Asked what she would say to lawmakers considering a vote to authorize military action, Sarah said she would urge them to find a nonviolent solution. “I would also encourage them to seek support both domestically and internationally,” she said.

Sarah welcomes the political debate. “One of the reasons this issue is so interesting is the fact that it is not clearly partisan,” she said. “Both Democrats and Republicans have mixed opinions concerning military action against Syria. It’s good when the public can discuss sensitive issues such as this one, whether it’s in our national interests or involves human-rights concerns. Debate keeps the public more informed and able to make good decisions.”

Tough question

Christopher Aring of West Tisbury, 15, is a Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School sophomore. A member of the high school newspaper and technical director of the school theater, he said he has “conflicting views.”

Christopher said he has been unable to arrive at one answer on the question of the use of military force. “I see many reasons why it could be good, and many reasons why it could be a bad thing,” he said in a telephone conversation Monday.

He said if Syria has used chemical weapons, it is wrong and the government must be held accountable and punished in some way. “America is that country that goes out and helps everyone else and I guess in return is hoping for everyone to like us,” he said. “And when we need them, they hopefully will be there.”

On one hand, Christopher supports missile strikes on Syria. “I say do it, because even though there might be some civilian casualties you’ll stop lots more from dying because you’ll stop his use of chemical weapons,” he said.

But the possibility of killing more innocent civilians is also reason enough to hold back, he said.

One point he is certain of is the need for the president to have the support of Congress. “While there are conflicting reasons to do it or not, if the majority of the American people don’t want it to happen he really should not go through with the bombing if Congress says no,” he said. “It defeats the whole purpose of being a democracy.”

For Obama, but not on this

Patricia “Paddy” Moore of West Tisbury, a professional mediator by training, has actively worked on-Island in support of Democratic candidates and Mr. Obama.

“It’s hard for me because I’m a strong Obama supporter, and I have applauded his getting us out of Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said. “So, it’s challenging to me to really say I don’t agree with this.”

Ms. Moore said she agrees that at a moral level the world should do something about chemical weapons, but the U.S should not act without international support. “I think it would be a grave mistake with serious potential consequences to get into Syria alone,” she said.

She assumes there have been behind the scenes discussions that have led to the Russian proposal that could offer a way out of the crisis. But she is under no illusions that will stop the Syrian dictator.

“I think that simply shows we need to do more at the international level to control the kinds of arms that we don’t believe should be used, but I don’t think America should go it alone, particularly in the Middle East,” Ms. Moore said.

Referring to her experience teaching a conflict resolution across cultures course to students from around the world each summer, she said, “You just see that our interventions, despite sometimes our best intentions, often turn out to be resented by the people that are there.”

Ms. Moore said the notion that a failure to act would make the U.S. look weak may be true to some extent, but such an outcome is also self-created. “I think Obama was speaking probably for all of us at some level of moral intention when he drew the line in the sand,” she said.

“I believe as a mediator that people draw lots of lines and say, I’m never going to do this or that, but if you give them some face saving ways to reconsider and reframe the way in which it is viewed, they do, we do as human beings, change our minds and see a wiser path.” In this case, she said, Mr. Putin has provided a face-saving choice.

Ms. Moore offers a qualified view on the need for the president to consult Congress before taking military action. “I think before committing troops, clearly,” she said. “Before taking any military action, I don’t think a president has to do that.”

She said there is the question of a precedent, but Mr. Obama made the right choice. “In this case, I think a) it might have been necessary, and b) it was wise because if you have to go it somewhat alone on the international stage, you certainly have to have a united front at home, but he doesn’t.”

None of our business

Tom Rancich of Vineyard Haven is a decorated 20-year veteran of the U.S. Navy who spent part of his career as a Navy Seal, dealing with disposal of unexploded bombs. He retired at the rank of Lieutenant Commander in 2003, after serving with the Naval Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan.

“I do not believe we should take any action in Syria,” Mr. Rancich told The Times Friday. “I don’t think it is particularly any of our business.”

Mr. Rancich said there is only a small distinction to be made between death from sarin gas and dying from the lingering effects of a 2,000-pound bomb blast. He said the notion that this recent attack should precipitate U.S. action after years of killing on both sides makes no sense.

He discounts the notion that a failure to act would be seen as a sign of U.S. weaknesses by other nations. The U.S. is not shirking leadership at the head of a coalition of willing nations looking to take action, it is just the opposite. “That coalition doesn’t exist,” he said.

Mr. Rancich sees few good options. “We’ve backed ourselves into a corner… We have several leaders of our country saying we have to take action because it’s the only moral thing to do, but there is nothing we can do that is going to be meaningful with regard to ending the conflict.”

There is talk about arming the Syrian opposition. Mr. Rancich says Afghanistan provide some lessons. “Every single bullet that was ever shot at me, every mortar round that was ever shot at me in Afghanistan was bought by the United States,” he said. “Can’t we just let people determine their nation’s fate? That’s what has to happen in Syria. We might not like who wins, we might not like how they win, but it’s none of our business.”