ST. LOUIS — —
During his five years heading Illinois' National Guard, Bill Enyart oversaw the biggest single deployment of the guard's soldiers since World War II: Some came back from Afghanistan wounded; others in coffins.
Now as a freshman Democrat in Congress from a conservative-leaning southern Illinois district, Enyart personifies the dilemma of nearly the entire Illinois delegation in weighing whether to back President Barack Obama's push for "limited" military action against Syria.
In a nation weary of more than a decade of war, public opinion polls show little desire for a U.S. military response to chemical weapons that the Obama administration believes Syria's governing regime used on civilians last month. That reticence has been fierce in Enyart's district, which stretches from St. Louis' Illinois suburbs to the state's southernmost tip and encompasses a large swath that has been chronically economically stressed.
On Friday, Enyart said that of constituents weighing in to his office by telephone, emails and social networking, 20 oppose U.S. involvement in Syria for every one that endorses it. That's softened from a 90-to-1 ratio just days earlier.
"There are no good choices here," Enyart, who says he's still on the fence about the issue, told The Associated Press by telephone from Belleville, his Illinois hometown east of St. Louis. "What we have to do is pick the least bad choice."
Obama plans to make his case to Americans on Tuesday, confident he can convince them that the suspected use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians mandates a "limited and proportional" military response. Obama is pressing that pitch to Congress, though he believes he can take the military action with or without lawmaker approval.
The Obama administration cleared one obstacle Wednesday, when a divided Senate panel approved a resolution authorizing military force but restricting that action to 90 days and barring American ground troops from combat. On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., formally filed the resolution, which is expected to reach the Senate floor next week.
The timing of a vote is uncertain, as is when the matter may be taken up by the House, which reconvenes Monday after a five-week recess.
Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who voted in favor of the use-of-force resolution, called it justified, insisting "if the United States did not take this leadership role, I do not know who would." His Republican counterpart, Sen. Mark Kirk, said he would support a narrowly authorized missile strike, labeling it a possible deterrent.
In the House, Illinois Republican Rep. John Shimkus appears unconvinced about the necessity of military action, even as the top two Republicans in that chamber — Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia — support it.
"Until I see evidence of a real threat against the United States or our allies or unless the international community reaches a consensus and leads, I am not convinced that a limited strike against Syria at this time is warranted," Shimkus said this week.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, another Illinois Republican, has countered that "I believe limited military involvement in Syria is the correct course of action to deter the future use of chemical weapons and move the country towards a long-term political solution."
"Simply put, when America retreats, chaos and violence follow," he said.
Most of Illinois' 18-member congressional delegation hasn't made up its mind, saying they were waiting for Obama to make his case. That includes a number of Democrats from Obama's hometown of Chicago.
Those conflicted include Enyart, an attorney with some 35 years of military service that included the five years recently spent as the state's adjutant general, commanding more than 13,000 members of the Army and Air National Guards and serving as chief military adviser to the governor.
Enyart insisted Friday his decision about Syria would not be swayed by politics, most notably the prospect that voting against U.S. military action would put him at odds with the desires of Obama. Just eight months into his first term, Enyart already faces a couple of Republican challengers in his re-election quest next year.
Saying the Obama administration "is trying to thread a very fine needle here," Enyart wonders about the "unforeseen consequences" of hitting Syria with U.S. missiles. Chief among them: Such military force could be twisted by Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime into propaganda that would paint that country as a victim, roiling anti-American sentiment.
"I think there are so many unknown variables in this equation," Enyart said. "It's not an intellectual exercise for me. It's very real. I need to feel comfortable in my gut that what I'm doing is the right thing for our nation, and I think the American people are part of this decision."