Posted 9/7/2013 03:48 pm
Updated 6 months ago
LITTLE ROCK — Running for his Senate seat 11 years ago against a Republican incumbent, Mark Pryor voiced support for a Republican president's request to use military force against Iraq. Now the two-term senator says he's likely to reject a Democratic president's request to use force against Syria over its use of chemical weapons.
Tom Cotton won his south Arkansas congressional seat and is challenging Pryor next year primarily on a vow to fight President Barack Obama and his policies. But when it comes to Syria, the freshman GOP lawmaker is one of the most vocal supporters of Obama's call for military action.
Obama's request for military action against Syria after officials said it killed more than 1,400 people with sarin gas adds a foreign policy element to a Senate race that had been expected to hinge on domestic issues like health care and the federal budget. But it's unclear whether it's an issue that could alter the dynamics of the matchup next year.
Arkansas is also turning into a prime example of how the war weariness that many congressmen and senators are encountering as they talk about Syria isn't easily defined by party lines.
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Most members of the state's delegation have said they're unlikely to support Obama's request for military action against Syria, which could go before the House and Senate this week. Cotton, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the only one who's said he'll back the request. Pryor, the only Democrat in the state's delegation, announced over the weekend that he can't support taking military action.
"I have said, before any military action in Syria is taken, the Administration must prove a compelling national security interest, clearly define a mission that has a definitive end-state, and then build a true coalition of allies that would actively participate in any action we take," Pryor said in a statement released by his office Saturday. "Based on the information presented to me and the evidence I have gathered, I do not believe these criteria have been met, and I cannot support military action against Syria at this time."
The reason for Pryor's skepticism was clear last week, as he quizzed voters about Syria and heard objections from several about the idea of the U.S. getting involved in another conflict overseas. The reaction was similar to national polls showing little desire for U.S. intervention.
Cotton has said he understands the reservations and reluctance from the public, as well as his colleagues, about intervening. The Republican congressman had advocated military action against Syria before Obama said he'd made the decision to act but first wanted congressional approval. Cotton's argued that part of the reason for going after Syria is sending a message to Iran.
"This action would be in our core national security interests," Cotton said last week. "Our credibility is on the line not just with Syria but also with Iran."
Cotton's position poses political risks as he tries to defeat Pryor in a race that Republicans believe is a prime pickup opportunity next year. Some of the most vocal opponents to the U.S. taking action are the same conservative activists that he's relying on in his Senate bid next year. But the debate also gives him a chance to tout his military resume, one of his chief selling points in taking on Pryor just several months into his congressional term.
For Pryor, opposing the intervention gives the incumbent Democrat an example to point to where he's split with Obama and other top Democrats and listened to constituents back home. But it could come at the expense of support from Democrats and incumbents who agree with Obama's position.
Though the debate adds a new foreign policy element to the Senate race, it's far from certain that the race will be decided by anything other than domestic issues. The odd coalition between Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the debate make it harder for either Cotton or Pryor to capitalize on Syria as a campaign issue.
Jay Barth, political science professor at Hendrix College who has been active in Democratic Party politics, said he doubts it's an issue that could move voters in the race.
"Yes, it's got negative public approval right now. That said, there still seems there a lot of people who seem flexible on it," Barth said. "It doesn't feel like it has that kind of power."
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