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Skeptical Democrat Takes A Stand Against Striking Syria

Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., arrives to register for orientation as newly elected members of Congress descend on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13, 2012.
Charles Dharapak
Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., arrives to register for orientation as newly elected members of Congress descend on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13, 2012.

A majority of Congress remains undecided, at least publicly, about President Obama's plan to launch a military strike against Syria.

Not Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan. The 69-year-old Democrat is a firm "no" vote.

He's characterized the administration's evidence of a chemical attack as "sketchy and confusing at best." He remains unconvinced that it was Syrian President Bashar Assad, and not the al-Qaida-linked rebels, who ordered the use of chemical weapons that killed 1,429 Syrians, including 426 children. During a Monday briefing on the situation, he got into a vigorous exchange with Secretary of State John Kerry.

"A careful examination of the evidence in this case shows a profound neglect in exploring the other possibilities," Nolan said Tuesday. "We do know that this whole thing will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and we'll kill a lot of people as well."

Nolan, who was first elected to Congress in the 1970s on an anti-Vietnam War platform, is emblematic of the resistance in the Democratic Party's liberal wing.

One of an estimated 50-plus left-leaning Democratic House members expected to vote against Obama's plan to strike Syria, Nolan is dead set against the use of force, arguing that the role of the U.S. is "not the policeman of the world."

"I've had the good fortune to vote to end several wars that we ought not to have gotten into," says Nolan, who declined to run for re-election in 1980 but was sent back to the House last fall after a 32-year hiatus. "I'd like to be on the front end of stopping one before it got started."

Nolan says he can't get into the specifics of the contretemps with Kerry because it occurred during a classified meeting. He summed it up this way: "He obviously hasn't read the same documents that I have — but he has invited me to meet with him in his office to go over the ones he has." The meeting is being planned.

Strange Bedfellows

The liberal Democratic congressman finds himself in the unusual position of being aligned with fellow Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, the conservative founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, who also adamantly opposes military action.

Some characterize the opposition to intervention in Syria as libertarian, ultraconservative or ultraliberal. Nolan explained it this way during a Tuesday radio interview in his home state: "I think it's just good common sense."

Yet for all the chatter about liberal anti-interventionists like Nolan teaming up with libertarian or conservative anti-interventionists like Bachmann, history — and especially recent history — is not on their side.

The closest such a coalition came to victory recently was a vote on a bipartisan House amendment that would have restricted the NSA's power to collect domestic phone records. The amendment, sponsored by libertarian GOP Rep. Justin Amash and liberal Democratic Rep. John Conyers, both from Michigan, attracted votes from both parties but failed 205-217. Bachmann voted against the amendment; Nolan voted for it.

Could the unlikely coalition against military action in Syria produce a different result?

"I would love to be proven wrong because President Obama promised us no stupid wars," says Michael Heaney, a former House committee staffer under Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. "But you don't see any coordination across these groups, and you would need to see that to build a winning coalition."

"Given the polarization in Washington, I don't see it being built — to build a majority, you really need coordinated opposition across both parties," says Heaney, who has written extensively about what he calls the "demobilization" of the anti-war movement since Obama won the White House.

"My prediction is that there will be opposition from both political extremes, people who are fairly marginal in American politics, but most in the middle will support the president," he says.

There is at least one wild card, however: House leaders of both parties have designated the Syria vote one of individual conscience, meaning members will not be pressured by the leadership team to vote a certain way.

"When you have a free vote, or a conscience vote, members have to make up their own minds," says Keith Poole, a political scientist who tracks U.S. politics and polarization at the University of Georgia. "This vote will separate the serious from the unserious, and that's why it's so important."

It's a situation where it will be difficult to predict votes based on previous positions, says John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World, a progressive organization that advocates for the control of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

"This is a new situation for everyone," Isaacs says. "Congress is like the dog that chases the car — now they've caught the car, what do they do?"

Slim Prospects For No Vote?

On Tuesday, the chances of the no-on-Syria movement appeared to dim as House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor issued strong statements of support for the president's plan to launch a military strike.

And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who along with Obama, opposed the Iraq War in 2002, has continued to stand by the president.

In a letter Tuesday to Nolan and his fellow House Democrats, Pelosi said that a military response to the use of chemical weapons is "in the national interest," and evidence of the use of chemical weapons is "clear, convincing and devastating."

The rallying that's occurring around the president's plan points to the difficulty that unlikely coalitions face when trying to put together a win.

Nolan concedes the uphill nature of his fight. Even he'd bet on the "power of the presidency and the military-industrial influence on Congress" to ultimately extract a yes vote for Obama's plan.

One reason is that the fervor of those opposing war during the Bush administration was all but extinguished by Obama's election, says Heaney, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, where he and a colleague have tracked the modern anti-war movement.

"It's not easy," Nolan says of his anti-war efforts. "The president has a very formidable PR machine."

He also tweaked major media outlets, suggesting that they have failed to balance the voices of advocates for the strike against Syria with contrarians.

"These wars of choice," Nolan said Tuesday in Minnesota, "are bankrupting the country."

He wants Assad's fate to be placed in the hands of the International Criminal Court — despite the fact that it's an alternative that many see as toothless on its own, especially in the face of Syria-like situations. (It took U.S.-led bombings and NATO intervention to bring Bosnian war criminals to trial, for example.)

Still, Nolan argues that courts and the rule of law should be allowed to play their roles despite their flaws.

"It's not easy, but in the progress of humanity, killing begets more killing begets more killing," he said. "I think, in this instance we don't have any friend in this conflict, on either side."

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.