In a county with strong ties to the military, new Rep. Scott Peters is hearing deep concern from constituents over striking Syria.
SAN DIEGO — The military planes and helicopters that roar on training runs over this city's crystalline bay are a reminder of how deeply woven the armed forces are into the fabric of freshman Rep. Scott Peters' congressional district.
The question of whether the United States should intervene in Syria looms large here. Dotted with seven bases for the Navy, Marines and U.S. Coast Guard, the district is home to voters who have a profound understanding of the need for military force, a deep pride in their region's role in keeping the nation safe — and an intimate awareness of the toll of war.
It also looms large for Peters, a Democratic former city councilman who eked out a victory last November in an election in which Syria was an afterthought, if that.
"This is certainly the toughest thing I have faced in my eight months in Congress," he said during a telephone town hall Thursday night with thousands of his constituents.
Peters initially planned to hold a conference call about education during the final days of the congressional recess. But his office heard from so many concerned about possible American intervention in Syria that it abruptly shifted the call's focus. That allowed Peters to hear directly from constituents before he returns to Washington to attend a classified briefing about the matter Monday.
The next day, President Obama will try to sell the nation on limited strikes on Syria, prompted by the suspected chemical-weapon deaths of more than 1,400 people, including hundreds of children. And soon after that, Congress will vote.
It's a debate roiling town halls across the nation. But it has special resonance here, in a county that is home to more Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans than any other in the nation.
"This is not merely a theoretical debate for a lot of families in a district like this. A lot of us know people who are pilots and may be dropping these bombs. That adds a human and immediate dimension to what is an otherwise far-away political issue," said Thad Kousser, an associate professor of political science at UC San Diego. "People have seen the concrete costs of wars, and the district also includes a veterans' hospital. You can't walk around San Diego without seeing people who have lost limbs. That makes it a less abstract debate."
Across the district, there is a general weariness about getting entangled in another overseas conflict and a skepticism that it will be as limited in scope as the president is promising. Concern cuts across party lines: Hawkish voters are skeptical of this military engagement, and Democrats are divided over a proposal that the leader of their party is wholeheartedly pursuing.
"To look at what's happening there is really awful.... No one wants to see anyone get hurt," said San Diego resident Jeannie Foulkrod, a Republican whose father is a retired Marine who completed two tours in Vietnam. But "there is somewhat of a battle fatigue. San Diego is such a huge military town. We have so many volunteers that help the people who come back with serious injuries.... Although all of us are so thankful for their service, why should they be dying for someone else's civil war?"
Aaron Burden, a 31-year-old Democrat, served in the Navy for nearly a decade, deploying to Iraq and the Philippines and on aircraft carriers around the globe.
"I can't see the benefits outweighing the risk of another extended engagement on the ground of another Middle Eastern country," said the UCSD senior, who is studying communications and political science. "Personally, I didn't feel justified going into Iraq," where soldiers remained for years, he said.
The complicated, lengthy entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan weighed on many voters here. Still, others in Peters' district said the United States has a moral obligation to intervene when a nation has violated international norms forbidding the use of chemical weapons.
"My feelings on it are, you look back 60, 70 years ago, we had a big war called World War II. There's a saying out there, 'Never again.' I feel if we are in a position to do something about it, we should do something about it," Democrat Jared Nelson said as he served grilled yellowtail tacos and porchetta sandwiches at Whisknladle in La Jolla, the tony coastal enclave home to Peters and former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Peters, a 55-year-old economist-turned-lawyer with no military experience, heard many of the same sentiments during his town hall, as well as at other times during the recess. More constituents have called his office — and approached him in the grocery store, at restaurants and on the street — about Syria than any about other issue since he took office in January, he said in an interview. He remains undecided.
"People have been very vocal and forthcoming," Peters said. "It's the vote that I think about the most. This is with me every moment I am awake, both because I think it's such a hard problem and I'm not sure there are good answers. I'm not sure we'll know the right answer till months from now. But the consequences of it are very serious."
Though he hasn't made a decision, he is clearly as skeptical about the proposal as many voters are. He said he needs to know more about the intended objective if the United States decides to intervene, expected results and level of support from other nations. A member of the Armed Services Committee, Peters said he wonders how another military engagement would affect the nation's military readiness, especially in the face of budget cutbacks.
"I want to keep an open mind. I'm not sold today," Peters said. "But I think it's important for me to do my homework. I'm looking forward both to going to the briefing and seeing the classified documents people have been able to review."
His decision has political consequences, since he is among the most vulnerable congressional Democrats in the nation. His narrow November win came as Obama's presence on the ballot lured Democrats to the polls. Next year's midterm turnout will be tougher, and moneyed forces are aligning to try to topple Peters. Even before the Syria vote arose, he faced a difficult reelection fight, and now Republicans are threatening to blister him if he sides with his party's president.
Peters insists the stakes are too great for politics to play a part in his decision. "Look, I assume that my political opponents will hammer me with any vote I take on any issue. I don't care what the politics is, particularly on this issue," he said.
Instead, he pointed to a ceremony he attended at Camp Pendleton on Thursday after recruits completed the "Crucible," a rigorous three-day exercise in which, with little sleep, they hiked 48 miles carrying heavy gear and were subjected to physical and mental tests before officially becoming Marines.
"You see what they put up with, you see their faces, it makes you think really seriously about whether you want to put them in harm's way," Peters said. "I never do unless I'm really convinced about the necessity…. It's much more about that kind of thing than what political hacks are going to say about me."