Syria Splits The Professional Left

Progressive leaders and organizations are happy Obama is going to Congress — but to do what? "We are not united as a community," says Jim Dean.

WASHINGTON — When President Obama called on Congress to authorize the attacks on Syria he wants, progressive groups' first reflex was to mobilize against more American military action in the Middle East.

But for many groups, their second impulse was — not so fast.

"I think the progressive community is quite split," said Mike Lux, a longtime liberal activist and CEO of the consulting firm Progressive Strategies.

In particular, progressive groups are universally thrilled that Obama has decided to ask for Congress' input on military action. But the left is not united about what it wants Congress to do next.

Some groups have come out strongly against military action in Syria and are preparing to lobby Congress to vote against authorization. But many of the leading progressive organizations are conflicted, either still figuring out their position or punting on the issue entirely.

In an extraordinary email to its supporters Saturday afternoon, Democracy For America — a group founded from the remnants of Howard Dean's 2004 anti-war presidential campaign — told its supporters its members were too divided on military action in Syria for DFA to take a stand on it one way or the other. After listing a sampling of DFA member voices expressing all manner of opinions on Syria from interventionist to pacifist, the group said it is not going to lobby Congress on how to vote on Obama's war authorization.

"Thoughts are still coming in, but after our team reviewed responses from over 40,000 DFA members...only one thing was clear," reads the email from Jim Dean, Howard's brother and DFA's chair. "We are not united as a community. And if we tried to call for one united action in response, we'd be dividing our members -- instead of uniting behind them."

The only answer, Dean wrote, was to help progressives lobby Congress in whichever way they choose.

"We're going to offer something different than we normally do," he wrote. "Instead of advocating one course of action over another, I want to provide you with the resources to choose your own action based off of the three most common themes repeated throughout the responses."

The list includes "Tell Congress not to use military force" and "Help support the efforts to protect civilians and treat victims of the conflict" as well as "Put your own idea for action in the hands of our members" through DFA's "member generated campaign platform."

DFA isn't the only progressive group to decide not to decide when it comes to lobbying Congress on the war authorization. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group that doesn't shy away from publicly calling and even primarying Democrats when they don't act sufficiently progressive for the PCCC membership and leadership, strongly praised Obama for asking Congress' opinion on war in Syria. But the group doesn't have an opinion on what Congress should do yet.

"Think a lot of people are taking this in," PCCC co-founder Adam Green said in an email interview. "Getting [our] head around it all."

Green sent a link to George Packer's "Two Minds On Syria" piece from last week to illustrate the progressive mindset. "See this great piece in New Yorker?" Green wrote.

Other groups and progressive leaders don't feel the internal conflict. MoveOn, the grandaddy of online progressive action and a consistently anti-war voice during Iraq, is firmly on the side of voting down Obama's war in Syria.

"MoveOn members are opposed to U.S. military intervention in Syria and are making their opinion known to members of Congress," group spokesperson Nick Berning said.

It has allies. CREDO, a San Francisco-based progressive activist group best known recently for promising mass civil disobedience if Obama approves the Keystone pipeline, is preparing its own campaign to lobby Congress against backing military action in Syria. That campaign is expected to begin next week.

CREDO and MoveOn will have some allies in Congress. On Sunday afternoon, as members of Congress were gathering for a briefing on Syria on Capitol Hill, Florida Democrat Alan Grayson tweeted out a link to his website and vowed to urge his colleagues to vote against the war authorization.