Lee Hamilton says American credibility is at stake right now, and he is pleased with President Obama’s decision to invite Congress to weigh in on Syria.
“In the past Congress has been too deferential to presidents on the question of war and peace and military intervention,” he said.
Hamilton, who spoke in Bloomington Thursday to a full audience of IU students, says if negotiations collapse with Syria, he will support a limited strike against the country.
“You can go in and do everything — troops on the ground, trying to make Syria a democracy, but no one wants to do that,” he said. “You can do nothing. I don’t think that’s a good thing to do because you’re going to let him get away with an atrocious act. We’re trying to find a middle ground.”
Twelve Years Since 9/11
Hamilton, who spent his time in Congress representing Indiana’s 9th congressional district, was asked about the reasons behind the 9/11 attacks. Lee, who headed the 9/11 Commission, said members devoted a lot of time trying to understand the attackers’ motivations. He said that Osama Bin Laden grew up resenting American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. In Bin Laden’s eyes, the Americans “desecrated their soil,” Hamilton said.
“They didn’t read the Koran, they didn’t pray properly, they went to movies, they drank liquor, they smoked, and they were all gonna go to hell,” he said.
Despite the commission’s efforts, members were never really able to come to a conclusion.
“You can’t pay someone a lot of money to kill themselves. How do you motivate a person to kill himself? Osama Bin Laden did a pretty good job of it, didn’t he? He must have been pretty persuasive,” he said.
Hamilton said it’s important for Americans to understand how other countries perceive them and warned against developing a sense of superiority. He noted President Obama referring to “American exceptionalism” in the closing remarks of his Wednesday address.
“Americans listen to that, and we all nod our heads and approve it,” Hamilton said.
He said those same comments rile Russian President Putin and other leaders.
When asked whether he felt the United States policy on terror was working, Hamilton said the military’s use of drones had been effective in killing many leaders.
“There isn’t any doubt the Al Qaida leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated,” he said.
But he said the United States was also beginning to feel the backlash over civilians killed by drones.
Hamilton said despite Al Qaida’s continuing hatred of the United States, “The likelihood of 9/11 occurring is not very high.”
“Al Qaida does not have the capability, we think, to do it,” he said.
The fear of a “lone wolf” like the Boston bombers harming Americans will continue to challenge local law enforcement agencies, he said.
“Just think of all these people you’ve got to keep track of,” Hamilton said.
Changes In American Politics
Hamilton also discussed several issues he sees as hampering citizens’ political process. He said he’s concerned about voting access in Indiana, particularly the limits on polling hours to 6 p.m. Indiana closes polls earlier than any other state in the nation, except for Kentucky, he said.
“Some people get off work at 5 o’clock at night, and some of them have to drive 25 miles to get home,” he said. “Six p.m. is clearly a barrier.”
Hamilton said that despite its unpopularity, he also would support a movement toward government funding of political campaigns.
“I worry that too many members of Congress are too susceptible to influence because of money,” he said.
He said the country’s increasing diversity and expanding population have created challenges in reaching a consensus, noting that when he was the students’ age, the population was only 130 million, compared to today’s 314 million.
“You got all this diversity and you got all this bigness, so working out problems is tough,” he said. “What impresses me most about government in this country is how hard it is to make it work.”