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Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Like constituents, Bilirakis a ‘solid no’ on Syria strike

TRINITY – A month can be an eternity in the affairs of humankind, especially a month like Greater August, that sleepy span of weeks taking in Labor Day when Washington goes on hiatus and you might see your congressman late on a Thursday sipping iced coffee in the corner Starbucks — and this one was no exception.

The talk about domestic concerns that dominated meetings with constituents when this recess began has been shoved almost completely aside by news that, in Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s regime allegedly gassed civilians in a Damascus suburb. Now President Obama, describing a red line that somebody somewhere once said couldn’t be crossed, is patting the bongos of war, sort of. And he has demanded what he says he does not need and often tramples over anyway when it suits him: congressional approval.

Back home in Florida, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, the Palm Harbor Republican whose district includes all of Pasco County, has taken note of his constituents’ thoughts on the strike against Syria the president seeks, and he describes them as unified and unequivocal.

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“And how they feel about it is” — here he pauses, shifts in his chair and glances out the window, as though anticipating the arrival of a train bringing just the right phrase, one nuanced, statesmanlike and respectful of the historic moment.

But Samuel Johnson’s muse is delayed, prompting his companion to interject, “They hate it.”

Solemnly, Bilirakis nods. “They hate it. By 98, 99 percent.” And the congressmen is with them.

That’s not just wariness talking. That’s outright, hard-edged revulsion, and it crosses generations, genders, occupations, party lines, socioeconomic status and geography. It’s a rare moment of unity in a district that stretches from the Tarpon Springs sponge docks to the ranches and pine forests bordering Sumter County, and Bilirakis, alert to the benefits of common cause, is eager to embrace it.

“I’ll go to the briefings,” he says, “and I’ll listen to all the experts. But I’m a solid no.”

It can’t be just that we’re war-weary because sometimes great nations rouse themselves to unpleasant tasks even when they would rather pull the pillow over their heads.

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We hate it, even more, because those pushing a strike — President Obama’s “shot across the bow” (demonstrating once again why he should avoid metaphors of combat) — are vague about what comes next. Someone should have told the commander in chief legitimate shots across the bow express themselves plainly: Heave to and surrender, or prepare to be sunk.

Instead, for all their soaring rhetoric about moral obligations and credibility on the global stage, the president and his Capitol Hill allies seem to believe satisfaction will be achieved with a big splash off the port side. Reflecting the thoughtful mood of his district, Bilirakis won’t go for that.

“What’s the long-term goal?” he says. “I don’t know if they have one, and if they do, if it can be achieved.”

Also, he says, “What are the consequences (of a limited strike)? There are a lot of questions about the risks” to American interests and allies in the region.

“Then you’re not even taking (Assad) out. But if you do, who takes charge?” While radical Islamists dominate rebel forces in the north and south, the faction of non-sectarian army deserters thought friendliest — using the term advisedly — to the West has been compromised by mass defections to a coalition loyal to al-Qaida in Iraq.

At best, Bilirakis says, we’d be sticking our noses into the sort of Middle East civil war we’d been warned to avoid when Barack Obama and Joe Biden were senators. At worst, U.S. strikes would tilt the odds of regime change against Assad and, Bilirakis says, “I don’t know if we’d be any better off.”

The congressman won’t say the whole affair resembles an ill-considered vanity project whipped up by an administration eager to change the subject from domestic topics it finds problematic, although he could.

Instead Bilirakis simply says, “I just don’t think it’s responsible.” And the whole of District 12 says, “Amen.”

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