Washington, D.C. — Perhaps underestimating the public’s skepticism about diving into another potential quagmire in the Middle East, Sen. Brian Schatz in the course of a weekend embraced the idea of doing something about Syria, then downshifted to join the ranks of those calling for debate.

On Friday, Schatz responded with moral indignation after the administration said the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on its own citizens, and seemed to embrace President Barack Obama’s threat of military action.

“The President and his national security team have provided strong evidence that the Assad regime is responsible for the recent horrific chemical weapons attack against innocent Syrian civilians,” Schatz said in a statement. “We must send a clear message that the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent and will not be tolerated by the United States or the international community.”

By Sunday, however, Schatz had released a second, more circumspect statement. Though his aides strongly disputed the notion Tuesday that the senator had changed his position, the second statement was decidedly different in tone from the first. Gone was a call for “sending a message.”

“Congress must weigh in,” he said. “And this decision should spur an important debate, allowing us to review the facts. Most importantly, this assures the country that the gravity of taking military action is weighed fully before decisions are made.”

Schatz never explicitly backed a military strike, and he did say Congress should be involved in any decision to go to war. But his statements are in contrast to the response of other members of Hawaii’s delegation who are wary of a military strike.

On Friday, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa said the United States lacks a legal basis, a long-term strategy and international support for a Syria attack.

“Though intelligence has been presented by the Obama administration, I am not convinced that it serves the purpose of justifying military force or other intervention in Syria. This is an issue that deserves a rigorous and transparent debate about its ends and its means,” said Hanabusa.

The congresswoman noted that the faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction that drew the U.S. into the war in Iraq serves as a warning sign about Syria and future conflicts.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard also expressed serious reservations about another potential U.S.-led war in the Middle East and Central Asia, and asked that Congress be involved in any decision.

“Right now, we do not have enough facts about all facets of what is occurring on the ground, the factions involved in this civil war, and what the unintended consequences would be for U.S. military involvement,” she said Friday.

On Monday, Gabbard’s office announced that the congresswoman, a military veteran, would return early to Washington to participate in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the situation in Syria Wednesday. Secretary of State John Kerry will testify, something he spent hours doing with a Senate committee Tuesday.

“The importance of this debate and the process of seeking Congressional approval for a military intervention is critical,” Gabbard said in a statement. “It is an opportunity for the American people and their representatives to review the facts and evidence, and understand what the endgame and next steps would be for any type of U.S. military intervention. This is a very big decision with tremendous impacts here at home, in Syria, and the Middle East region.”

It is not clear where Sen. Mazie Hirono stands on Syria. She is traveling in Asia this week, and Congress was not scheduled to end its summer recess until Sept. 9.

Weary of War

Schatz’s shifting of positions is similar to that of the president, who laid out an argument for a limited strike on Syria but later said he would first seek congressional approval. Since then, the administration has been heavily lobbying the senators and representatives who are in Washington this week.

But there is a political dimension to Schatz’s switch as well. Hanabusa, who is challenging Schatz in the 2014 Democratic primary, is staking out a position on Syria that echoes that of her mentor, the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, on Iraq.

Inouye, a decorated war veteran, opposed the 2003 U.S. attack on Saddam Hussein. Former Rep. Ed Case supported the war, and his political opponents — including Hanabusa and Hirono — later used it against him in campaigns.

To University of Hawaii at Manoa political science professor Neal Milner, Schatz’s shift reflects a difficult issue with seemingly dire consequences, all within the context of the high-profile race between Schatz and Hanabusa.

On one hand, Milner said there’s an inclination to support a president of the same party. However, Hawaii, like the rest of the nation, seems tired of war, he said. And there is a political campaign going on.

Both Schatz and Hanabusa are also courting progressives, a key source not only for votes but for voter outreach in next year’s primary. Milner said, “The progressive wing has a long memory when it comes to what it considers bad votes on military matters.” Progressives, after all, backed Sen. Daniel Akaka in his defeat of Case in the 2006 Senate primary, at least partly because of Akaka’s opposition to the Iraq war, Milner said.

Schatz’s chief of staff, Andy Winer, emphasized that Schatz never called for a military response.

“A ‘clear response’ does not necessarily mean a military response,” Winer said. “If he supported a military response, he would have said so directly.”

Questioned about what a “clear response” meant, Winer said in a separate email that it could “include but not be limited to a no-fly zone, an embargo, a joint action by the UN, etcetera. It does not necessarily mean a military attack, but that could be one possibility among others to consider,” Winer said.

Asked to describe Schatz’s position, he said, “now that the President has agreed to Congressional review, he’s going to review the intelligence and the Administration’s plan and determine whether or not he supports military involvement.”

Nevertheless, on Tuesday, a Hanabusa spokesman seemed to be drawing a contrast with Schatz, saying she has been steadfast in her opposition to a military response. Without speaking in the context of the campaign, spokesman Richard Rapoza said in a statement, “Congresswoman Hanabusa has been consistent in her opposition to President Obama’s proposed intervention in Syria.”

“She remains convinced that U.S. military involvement in Syria lacks a solid legal basis, a clear long-term strategy, and vital international support,” said Rapoza.

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