By Patrick B. McGuigan
A diverse coalition of individuals allied for an anti-war rally at the Oklahoma state Capitol last Friday. Theme of the gathering and related activities was “Syria – Not Our War!”
Despite the heat (just shy of 100 degrees as the program kicked off at 7 p.m.), approximately 200 people attended, waiting beneath shade trees on the southwest side of the Capitol grounds before the event.
Ben Odom, a former state Democratic Party chairman, was among the prominent group of speakers from across the political spectrum.
He said, “The crowd and speakers were the most interesting mix I have ever seen at an Oklahoma political event. Most were from the libertarian GOP, or the pacifist left of the Dems. I was the ‘flaming moderate’ of the bunch, and simply made the point that of the possible scenarios, three out of four do not result in a positive for the USA – and the fourth is the least likely result. I am not a pacifist or an isolationist, this is simply a bad idea for us at this time.”
That “least likely” scenario, as Odom explained, is that the rebel faction could turn out to be closeted advocates of democracy and the rule of law. However, Odom made it clear he thinks that is impossible. The other scenarios involved shades of gray among possible outcomes – with Odom’s point being that none of those results actually would advance American national interests.
Coordinating Friday’s event was state Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Oklahoma City. Nathaniel Batchelder, director of The Peace House in Oklahoma City assisted with organization. The odd couple said they are opposed to U.S. government plans to support rebels seeking to oust the government of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Despite many differences on policy issues, the two men have become friends while working against current U.S. strategies that tilt toward the rebel alliance.
Wesselhoft’s Democratic colleague, Cory Williams of Stillwater, also addressed the crowd on Friday. He called attention to unresolved social and economic problems at home, pleading with federal decision makers to focus on those issues rather than the Syrian conflict. He said was saddened to disagree with an Obama administration policy, but reiterated his concern about the national government’s present approach. Like other speakers, Williams said it was a blessing to join such a diverse group working together for the common good.
State Sen. Connie Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, spoke passionately about her devotion to peace, recalling her legislation, in 2008, to create a U.S. Peace Academy. Johnson promised to keep her remarks brief – and, indeed, in a few minutes listed her major concerns about the Synian conflict, and her hopes to restructure U.S. policies to encourage cooperation rather than conflict.
Johnson embraced Wesselhoft before her speech – exactly as he had predicted in his introduction – and thanked him for leading the rally organization.
Batchelder and Wesselhoft alternated in the role of master of ceremonies at the gathering. Several state legislators who did not speak were also in attendance, including Reps. Sally Kern and Mike Reynolds, both Oklahoma City Republicans. Former Rep. Rex Duncan, now a rural district attorney, also spoke briefly.
Leading up to the event, Wesselhoft and Batchelder joined forces with four others in a press conference where they explained their motivations to Capitol reporters.
Wesselhoft stressed, “I am not a pacifist, and not an isolationist.” A common theme among the speakers was to stress that the United States is already involved in the conflict – and that is a mistake.
A retired military chaplain, Wesselhoft points out that at least two of the groups in the rebel coalition opposing the Syrian strongman have close ties to al-Quaida, the terrorist organization that coordinated the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
“Both sides in this conflict are committing atrocities. We are against further development toward intervention. We don’t want or need a proxy war with Russia,” Wesselhoft said. Russia is a close ally of the Syrian regime.
Co-sponsor Batchelder is a Vietnam Veteran, and he read a supportive statement from former Gov. David Walters at Friday’s rally.
Batchelder contends the U.S. military is exhausted by the last decade of endless wars, and that America has already drained too many resources in conflict. He continued, “War is an abomination that should be avoided at all costs, unless absolutely necessary for our survival.”
In an exchange with reporters, Batchelder pointed out that a United Nations investigation had blamed Syrian rebel forces for use of Sarin Gas in the conflict.
Editor of The Oklahoma Constitution, a monthly newspaper, Steve Byas agreed with Wesselhoft in eschewing isolationism, but asserted, “I am a non-interventionist.” He pointed to a conservative “peace” legacy, stretching from President Warren Harding and the late Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio (known in his most influential years as “Mr. Conservative”) to philosophers and writers such as Russell Kirk. Byas argued that human liberty always contracts, and government power always grows, during war.
Byas rejected the influence of “wise men” Robert McNamara (a Democratic Defense Secretary in the 1960s) and Donald Rumsfeld (George W. Bush’s Defense Secretary), and neo-conservatives today, saying he hopes the country adopts “a wise and conservative policy of non-interventionism.”
A former Democratic state representative and director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oklahoma also applauded rally organizers, and spoke with reporters during a mid-week briefing while preparing for the rally.
As a legislator, “I always got a zero on the Conservative Index” – an annual rating of key legislative votes published in Byas’ newspaper – Ryan Kiesel recalled. As Kiesel made that remark, Byas quipped, “You earned it,” to which the ACLU leader responded, “I know, and I worked hard to earn it.”
Kiesel stressed he was not appearing at the press briefing on behalf of the ACLU, “but as a public citizen.” The civil liberties activist believes there are in Syria “an array of options, and no good options.” Kiesel said America should stay out and, when war ends, “be a force for good and change.”
Although traveling and unable to get back to the city in time for Friday’s rally, Kiesel reiterated his personal support in a statement read to the crowd.
Another speaker, Lucas Collins, served as grass roots director for the state’s Ron Paul presidential campaign in 2012. Describing himself as “libertarian, perhaps an anarchist,” he added that after many years as a typical conservative, he became “a Christian pacifist.”
Discussing his views with reporters, Lucas said, “I regret supporting President Bush when he took us to war in 2003. Ron Paul has played a huge role in my transition. People think of peace as a cause of the Left, and Liberty as a cause of the Right, but these two cannot be separated. Violations of liberty are inherently violent.”
While military involvement often beings with “noble intentions, means and ends get mixed up. Too often we use the tools of violence to achieve an end.” He pointed out, “In the decade of war in Iraq, the Christian population of that country has nearly disappeared. I say to my fellow citizens, join us regardless of where you are on the political spectrum.”
Jason Byas – a student at the University of Oklahoma and son of the conservative publisher Steve – explained to journalists he wanted to encourage Oklahomans “to oppose a culture of war.” At the rally, the younger Byas gave a passionate critique of war and military action as parts of national strategy, earning sustained cheers from a cluster of fellow OU students who attended.
Rep. Wesselhoft stressed that despite Oklahoma’s deserved reputation for political conservatism, speakers at the evening rally would not bash President Barack Obama.
He noted that Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida and Lyndsey Graham of South Carolina have supported the president’s moves toward support for the rebels, with McCain advocating enforcement of a “no-fly Zone” over Syria.
At Capitol rally, diverse leaders and activists form anti-war coalition
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