One House Democrat Thinks the Evidence of the Syrian Army's Chemical Attack Is "Ambiguous"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 29 2013 4:15 PM

Rep. Alan Grayson: The Evidence of the Syrian Army Chemical Attack Is "Ambiguous"

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Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., doesn't see the merit in a U.S. intervention in Syria.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

For someone who is used to being dismissed as a "crazy" liberal, even by his Democratic peers, Rep. Alan Grayson is surprisingly pragmatic. He's helped pass more amendments than any of his colleagues in the House. He successfully amended a homeland security bill to include a ban on drones by appealing to his GOP colleagues with a libertarian streak. So it may not come as a surprise that he joins Sen. Rand Paul in voicing hesitation over a possible intervention in Syria.

Well, he goes a few steps past "hesitant"—Grayson finds the evidence for chemical weapon use "ambiguous," while vaguely saying there is "evidence to support other possibilities" of the attack. Even if the evidence unequivocally showed a chemical attack by the Syrian Army, he tells me, he wouldn't support an intervention because it poses little national security threat. "I find it difficult to justify any expenditure like that," he says. "There is nobody in my district who is so concerned about the well-being of people in Syria that they would prefer to see us spend billions of dollars on a missile attack against Syria than to spend exactly the same amount of money on schools or roads or health care."

The attack in Damascus last week is the latest in a number of reported attacks made in the year since President Obama marked a "red line" saying the use of chemical weapons justified military intervention. The Damascus death toll is estimated at more than 1,000 civilians in the nerve gas attack; United Nations inspectors have toured the site of the alleged attack but haven't issued their report yet. But Grayson says even if the reports are true, the number of Syrians who were reportedly killed in a gas attack is dwarfed by the number of Syrians killed by Bashar al-Assad's regime in the past year. He's not afraid to be blunt about it: "To me, a corpse is a corpse," he told a radio show host Thursday. "I don’t want to sound flip, but I think when you’re dead, you’re dead ... I don't really understand exactly why people regard this as being different if you blow up someone with a bomb versus killing them with gas."

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Grayson's fellow Democratic House members—54 of them—took a decidedly more moderate tack in a letter (PDF) to President Obama on Thursday. The full letter:

Dear Mr. President,
We join you and the international community in expressing unequivocal condemnation over the news that chemical weapons were reportedly used by the government of Syria.
While we understand that as Commander in Chiefe you have a constitutional obligation to protect our national interests from direct attack, Congress has the constitutional obligation and power to approve military force, even if the United States or its direct interests (such as its embassies) have not been attacked or threatened with an attack. As such, we strongly urge you to seek an affirmative decision of Congress prior to committing any U.S. military engagement to this complex crisis.
While the ongoing human rights violations and continued loss of life are horrific, they should not draw us into an unwise war—especially without adhering to our own constitutional requirements. We strongly support the work within the United Nations Security Council to build international consenseus condemning the alleged use of chemical weapons and preparing an appropriate response; we should also allow the U.N. inspectors the space and time necessary to do their jobs, which are so crucial to ensuring accountability.
As elected officials, we have a duty to represent the will and priorities of our constituents, consistent with the Constitution we all swore to uphold and defend. Before weighing the use of military force, Congress must fully debate and consider the facts and every alternative, as well as determine how best to end the violence and protect civilians. We stand ready to work with you.

The debate they want (and what we should expect) isn't as procedural so much as humanitarian, and the British government is already preparing its own rebuttal.

Emma Roller is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter.