Fifty-Five House Democrats Tell Obama: Talk to Russia and Iran About Syria

18 October, 2008: Rep. Jim Himes meets voters in Bridgeport, Connecticut. (Photo: Himesforcongress)Rep. Jim Himes meets voters in Bridgeport, Connecticut, October 18, 2008. (Photo: Himesforcongress)

On Tuesday, Connecticut Democrat Jim Himes sent a letter to President Obama signed by 55 House Democrats (including himself) urging President Obama to engage in international talks to try to end the Syrian civil war, including with Russia and Iran.

This happened because it’s time for it to happen; this happened because a large group of House Democrats don’t think the Iran nuclear deal is the end of what we can accomplish with diplomacy in the Middle East; this happened because a bunch of Democratic constituency groups that backed the Iran nuclear deal don’t think the nuclear deal is the end of what we can accomplish with diplomacy in the Middle East. MoveOn, along with many other pro-diplomacy groups, backed the Himes letter.

Some liberal economists used to explain John Maynard Keynes’ contribution to economic theory during the Great Depression like this. Some folks were having a fancy dinner party, when a dog walked in and relieved himself in the middle of the room. The guests continued talking as if nothing happened. Finally, one guy said, “Excuse me, but a dog just relieved himself on the floor.” That was Keynes. His contribution was pointing out the obvious thing that nobody wanted to acknowledge: mass unemployment. Keynes pointed out that invisible hand theory couldn’t explain mass unemployment and couldn’t help policymakers address the problem of mass unemployment.

Jim Himes – a member of the House Intelligence Committee – is the John Maynard Keynes of US Syria policy in Congress right now. He and his 54 House Democratic colleagues deserve “the thanks of man and woman” for standing in the public square and stating the obvious: If we want something fundamentally different and positive to happen in Syria now, if we want to help end the nightmare for Syrian civilians, we need to talk in a sustained way about Syria to people who have influence with the Syrian government, whether we like those people or not. We need to talk with Russia and Iran.

In the Beltway dinner party of foreign policy punditry about Syria now, Russian President Putin is kicking sand in our face and stealing our lunch money, because President Obama is a wimp. If only President Obama would be tough! If only President Obama would lead! Then surely all our adversaries would run away and cower in fear. Red, white and blue, unicorns and ponies, the end.

But if US military force were a magic wand for Syria, we should have seen some evidence for that in nearby Iraq in the last decade of war. If John McCain and Lindsey Graham think that Congress and the US people will support sending US ground troops to Syria, let them introduce an authorization for the use of military force for Syria that allows use of US ground troops for combat and see how many votes they can get. The US didn’t bomb the Syrian government in 2013 because the US people didn’t want to – including Republicans, including Republicans in the House.

If we are not going to overthrow the Syrian government by force – and we are not, just about everyone acknowledges that now, because even if we could we don’t want to live with the consequences of doing so – then if we want to help something different happen in Syria, we need to talk to the Syrian government, directly or indirectly.

In fact, we already are talking to the Syrian government, directly and indirectly. The US military is coordinating its military actions in Syria with the Syrian military. A major local cease-fire between Syrian government and rebel forces was just announced under UN auspices: Iran, Turkey and Qatar participated in the negotiations. Many thousands of Syrian civilians will be much better off as a result of this local cease-fire. Of course UN efforts for local cease-fires are happening with a green light from the US government. Secretary of State Kerry is already talking to Iran about Syria; President Obama, in his UN speech, said the US would engage Russia and Iran about Syria.

The sooner we can publicly discard the fairy tale that we can accomplish anything positive and significant in Syria without sustained negotiations between adversaries, the more we can do faster to reduce the violence, keep more people from becoming refugees and allow more refugees to return home.

Wednesday morning, Rep. Himes addressed the House on his call for international talks to end the Syrian civil war. You can watch that here: