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Monday, October 20, 2014         

NEW YORK TIMES


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In Tea Party country, much skepticism on Syria

By Michael Wines

New York Times

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WAYNESBURG, Pa. >> From his bar-side perch at Hot Rod's House of Barbeque here, 57-year-old Wolf Tripp argued that President George W. Bush had ample cause a decade ago to dispatch troops and armor into Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. "Look at the mass graves," he declared. "Hussein gassed his own people."

The gassing last month of hundreds of Syrian civilians is entirely another matter. And dispatching cruise missiles there to punish the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, is out of the question, Tripp said this week.

"What are we going to do - borrow more money from China to fight?" he said. "It's their civil war. Why are we going in there?"

As President Barack Obama tries to rally domestic support for military action against Syria, the skepticism in Waynesburg only underscores the political hurdles he faces. This bucolic, if fading, corner of southwest Pennsylvania wears its patriotism on its sleeve, shirttail, and pockets. At the time of Bush's decision to invade Iraq, a Quinnipiac University poll in Pennsylvania found that 86 percent of the voters in and around Waynesburg were solidly behind him.

But in myriad ways, the calculus has changed. Some say they now believe that domestic needs neglected during a decade of war override foreign imperatives. Some, reviewing years of pitched struggle in Afghanistan and Iraq, see the Middle East as quicksand that must be avoided at all costs. Some say Syria's civil war is Syria's problem, and that the United States is not the Mr. Fix-it for all of the world's crises.

And here, at least, more than a few see military action against Syria as unacceptable simply because it is Obama's idea.

In town to speak to students at Waynesburg University about Syria, the area's congressman, Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican who called himself undecided, said his office had received a few hundred calls and messages from constituents about Syria. "Generally, the calls are like this: 'I can't stand President Obama; don't you dare go along with him,'" he said.

In the university library, Murphy spent an hour tutoring some 20 undergraduates on the complexities of Congress' impending decision. When he finished, all but one of the students pronounced involvement in Syria a mistake. Obama's main argument that the world has a moral obligation to act against those who use chemical weapons went unmentioned.

"I wouldn't go in if I were you," said one of the undergraduates, John Waldon, 22. "Public opinion was against it. Second off, we're in a lot of debt. Third off, there haven't been United States citizens targeted in the attack."

Off-campus, the attitudes were similar. Jennifer Taylor said she was managing the officers' club at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C., and cheering on Bush when U.S. forces invaded Iraq. But this week, from her spot tending bar at Hot Rod's, she was decidedly against the use of force in Syria and questioned Obama's motivations in proposing it.

"Obama was against" the invasion of Iraq, Taylor noted, "and I don't understand why he's changed his stance." Seconds later, she offered an explanation: "He's having trouble keeping his popularity up; this war on guns has made him unpopular. And this is his way of getting back up."

Indeed, her customer, Tripp, suggested that the use of chemical weapons was actually an al-Qaida plot to lure the U.S. into toppling the Syrian government, and that Obama was falling for it. Terrorists will rush into the vacuum once Assad is gone, he warned.

To be sure, not everyone here believes a strike against Syria is a mistake.

"We're the watchdog of the world, and something's got to be done," Blair Zimmerman, a Democrat and a Greene County commissioner - Waynesburg is the county seat - said during a chat in the county office building. "I'm all for missile and airstrikes - but ending it there."

Perhaps the strongest argument for force came from Rudy Marisa, the retired men's basketball coach at Waynesburg University.

"Somebody has to stop putting a Band-Aid on it," he said. "It has to be stopped some way, somehow. You can take a stand and say, 'OK, we're not going to do this anymore; you guys keep fighting and whatever happens, happens.' But my opinion is that if we do that and stand back, they'll come in and take us over."

And in nearby Uniontown, callers to an afternoon talk show on WMBS radio, "What's on Your Mind?" seemed about equally split over the wisdom of striking at Syria's chemical weapons ability, said the program's host, Mark Rafail.

But, he noted, "most of the people that don't want to go in feel that if we do go in, the United States should be compensated by our allies, because we need to clean up our own backyard before we go out and protect other people."

That complaint - that Americans spend too much wading into foreign crises while allies stand idle - was perhaps the most common refrain among opponents of a Syria strike. Underlying that, in many discussions here, was the belief that from Vietnam to Iraq, a self-absorbed government had wasted money on foreign adventures while the needs of its own citizens went unmet and their security slowly eroded.

This is Tea Party country, where even the Democrats are conservative, and the towns that hug the junction of the Ohio and West Virginia border, less well-off and educated than most in the state, were hit hard by the long recession.

To Martin Wilson, a gray-bearded Vietnam War veteran who served in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, an attack on Syria would only continue a habit of squandering money and lives abroad instead of building the nation's security at home.

"We're not going to accomplish nothing over there," he said. "Middle East countries have fought for centuries. We're in Afghanistan, and we're not doing any good there. Russia tried it, and they failed."

He added: "Our defenses are still down. We just had another bombing, at the Boston Marathon. We just don't have control over anything anymore."

Wilson was working at Waynesburg's Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4793, festooned with eagles, flags, photos of uniformed servicemen and red-white-and-blue banners strung from the ceiling. Nearby, Dan and Malinda Dulaney, 51 and 49, were having a drink to celebrate their third anniversary.

"It's going to be a 'Red Dawn' situation," Malinda Dulaney said, referring to a film about a Russian takeover of the United States. "You see that movie? They're going to come over here, on boats, on planes, and take over. Who's going to defend us? We're sending them all overseas."






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