Chris Murphy, the junior U.S. Senator from Connecticut, talks to Brown Political Review’s Henry Knight. Sen. Murphy voted against this summer’s Senate resolution authorizing military force in Syria, representing a departure from his party and the president’s proposed foreign policy.
Brown Political Review: Why have you said your decision to vote against the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Syria resolution was a close call?
Chris Murphy: Earlier in the year, I was at a refugee camp in Turkey, and I saw with my own eyes the brutality of Bashar al-Assad. I looked into the eyes of a little girl with scars all over her face, the victim of a rocket attack from the leader of her own country. I understand why the president wanted to protect Syrian civilians from chemical weapons attacks, and I understand why he believes there’s a national security interest in standing up for the international norm against the use of these types of weapons of mass destruction.
My concern in Syria is that while I agree that there is a reason to intervene, I think a strike would have just added to the chaos on the ground. My concern in Syria is that while I agree that there is a reason to intervene, I think a strike would have just added to the chaos on the ground. Ultimately, it would have committed the U.S. to a very long engagement that likely would have confused, not advanced, our national security interests. I think we need to learn the lessons of the last decade. While there are no common parallels between Syria and Iraq, what we learned in Iraq and in Afghanistan is that when the U.S. uses the blunt instrument of military power to change the political realities on the ground in the Middle East – and when we do so unilaterally – we reinforce this image around the world, especially in the Muslim world, of the U.S. as a bully.
BPR: It’s not often that Chris Murphy and Tom Udall [D – NM] align in a coalition with Rand Paul. Are there rifts within each coalition concerning motives for intervention or restraint?
Murphy: I can’t speak to other members’ motives, but matters of war and peace compel a unique vote in Congress. Often it doesn’t fall along party lines. I was uncomfortable voting against the policy of my president. I generally think the president has done an absolutely masterful job of negotiating the American role in these Arab transitions over the past several years. I’ve supported him on virtually everything he’s brought to Congress over the past several years. This resolution, to me, was a bridge too far. I came to Washington as an anti-war candidate in 2007, and I continue today to feel that we need to practice restraint with our military around the globe.
It was curious to me that the Republican party, which in normal times would probably deliver large numbers for such a military authorization, was so heartily lined up against the president. I think there is an element of the Republican Party’s opposition to this that was really about handing a blow to this president.
BPR: Given your opposition to military intervention, what do you make of the diplomatic solution brokered by Russia for Syria to voluntarily surrender its stockpiles of chemical weapons?
Murphy: If you want to do anything meaningful in Syria, you have to go through Russia. Syria is, in many ways, a client state of Russia – especially today, when Assad is so greatly in need of military and economic support. All along, the president was very clear that, while he desired a military strike as a deterrent for the future use of chemical weapons, there was no final resolution of the crisis in Syria that wasn’t political and diplomatic. And if you want a political and diplomatic solution in Syria, the Russians have to be front and center at the table. Ultimately, if we’re successful in removing chemical weapons from Syria, it’s a much better resolution than what would have occurred after a military strike. I think the Russians are sincere in following through on this agreement. I think there are doubts as to whether Assad is sincere, but with the Russians pushing him to the table, I’m confident that we can get this deal brought to the finish line.
BPR: President Obama famously referred to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime as a “red line.” Does stripping Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles aptly enforce that red line and deter future chemical warfare?
Murphy: We’re living in a world of the possible, not the ideal. I would love to do more than just remove the weapons from Syria. I would love to try Bashar al-Assad in international criminal courts, punish him and his regime. But America is on the other side of the world from Syria, so we have to deal in the realm of what is practical and possible. We’ve made it very clear that there are going to be consequences for using chemical weapons. Now there’s a larger question about the humanitarian crisis on the ground in Syria, and we’re going to have to continue to provide humanitarian relief for the people of Syria. That really should be the bulk of our focus.
BPR: Assuming all goes well diplomatically, how should the U.S. provide relief?
Murphy: We have to be much more active players with respect to funneling aid to Syrians and the refugee efforts outside Syria. There’s no sign that the civil war is going to wrap up any time soon. I have openly opposed the U.S. getting involved in this civil war, as I have opposed direct military intervention, because I think this is a long term conflict the U.S. does not want to get dragged into. Our focus should be on humanitarian relief and on political support for the opposition to try to help them achieve a negotiated settlement in Geneva that can remove Assad from power.
BPR: What would that political support for the opposition look like?
Murphy: We had been offering political support prior to the president’s decision to begin arming the rebels. I don’t see anything wrong with reaching out to the opposition groups to try to help them start the foundations of a governance structure. We should not provide arms for the rebels, in part because the most able fighting element of the opposition forces is Jabhat al-Nusra, a wing of al Qaida. I think we can provide political support and try to stand up institutions of governance.
BPR: Suppose the diplomatic solution falls apart. Would you still oppose other means of intervention?
Murphy: I have a general reluctance to involve the United States in the Syrian civil war. But clearly, if conditions change, I’m always willing to reevaluate my position.