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By Janel Davis September 13, 2013
By Eric Stirgus September 13, 2013

Did senator change course on Syria position?

Did U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson support a military strike against Syria and then reverse course this week?

Isakson, a Republican from Cobb County, issued a written statement Aug. 31 in which he stated, "I support the use of military action in Syria." But just over a week later, on Monday, Isakson issued this written statement: "I have decided that I will vote against the resolution to authorize a U.S. military strike in Syria."

Did Isakson flip-flop his position in the rapidly evolving Syrian crisis? Or is something more politically nuanced going on here? PolitiFact Georgia decided to dig a little deeper. We invite you to visit our Facebook page and tell us what you think about our digging and whether you agree with our analysis.

Isakson’s most recent statement was debated in the conservative blogosphere, with some saying he had completely changed his stance.

We contacted Isakson’s office about his statements on Syria. His spokeswoman, Lauren Culbertson, said the senator had previously been undecided about his support for President Barack Obama’s resolution to use force against Syria. Culbertson said Isakson’s statement supporting military action came before the president unveiled his resolution.

"Senator Isakson could not support a mission that was so ill-defined," Culbertson told us.

Indeed, for days afterward, Isakson seemed hesitant to support the resolution.

The senator’s full statement on Monday, said: "After carefully weighing this very important issue, I have decided that I will vote against the resolution to authorize a U.S. military strike in Syria. Over the past week, I have traveled my state and have talked personally to hundreds of Georgians. Thousands more constituents have contacted my office by phone and email. It is clear to me that Georgians overwhelmingly oppose our country getting involved militarily in Syria. The administration’s lack of a clear strategy is troubling, and the potential fallout following a military strike is also troubling."

Here’s what Isakson said Aug. 31.

"It is appropriate for the president to seek authorization from Congress, although I wish he would have called us back to vote on this immediately rather than waiting until Sept. 9. I support the use of military action in Syria. If we fail to take strong action against Syria for this horrendous attack, then we are sending a signal to Syria as well as to Iran and North Korea that they are accountable to no one."

The senator’s initial statement came the same day Obama announced he would seek congressional approval for military action against Syria.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the following day that Isakson and Georgia’s other U.S. senator, Saxby Chambliss, backed military intervention in Syria. Chambliss is undecided on whether he will vote for the congressional resolution. (At press time, Chambliss was the lone member of Georgia’s congressional delegation supporting some sort of intervention. U.S. Reps. John Barrow and Sanford Bishop had not clarified their positions.)

Between those two statements, the AJC reported that Isakson wanted a clear strategy from the Obama administration.

"There's no question the Syrians crossed the red line the president drew, " Isakson told the AJC in a Sept. 3 phone interview. "And I think when you draw lines, when you don't enforce those lines you become a paper tiger. But I'm not going to blindly give this president a blank check given the commitment he's shown in the past two weeks and what appears to be a lack of a strategy. I want to be part of the debate."

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During an interview Tuesday with Channel 2 Action News, Isakson reinforced his reluctance to vote for a resolution authorizing military action.

When asked whether he stood by comments from Aug. 31 that he supported the use of military action in Syria, Isakson said: "I support that if it was actionable and meaningful and if it sent the right signal to North Korea and Iran. … If in the total context, yes. This one, in my opinion, did not do that."

"Is this a change of heart?" Isakson was asked.

"No," he answered.

"Is this a change of mind?" the interviewer asked.

"No," Isakson replied.

Some bloggers had a different interpretation. Jason Pye, a prominent Georgia libertarian, believes the senator has changed course.

"In his press statement on August 31, Isakson said in no uncertain terms that he supported the use of military action in Syria, making the case that failure to respond would send a signal to the United States' enemies that they are accountable to no one," said Pye, who opposes the strikes. "The lack of strategy from the Obama administration may now be a concern for the senator, but he didn't initially seem to have a problem with that."

"If this isn’t a flip-flop, I don’t know what is," Pye said.

Political science professor Kerwin Swint disagreed.

"Under the circumstances, I think it’s hard to blame him for waiting to see how it all plays out," said Swint, who teaches at Kennesaw State University in Isakson’s home county.  "It’s a unique situation especially because so many legislators around the country are revising their positions on this in light of the changing circumstances. It’s just a weird kind of story."

Culbertson directed us to recent AJC articles and other comments the senator has made on the subject, including a CNN interview Monday in which Isakson said "this is about the plan and the strategy that has been proposed to us."

We wondered whether Isakson still supports military action. Culberston told us via email that Isakson hopes for a diplomatic resolution, but if that fails, "he will reassess at that time. This is a fast-moving situation that is changing every day."

So where does all of this leave us?

Isakson’s position is that he initially supported the use of military action against Syria. But that was before Obama’s resolution outlined his administration’s plan for what that entailed. Isakson had reservations about the proposal, and he decided to oppose the White House resolution seeking congressional authorization for military strikes.

Isakson has altered his initial hard-line position on a military strike against Syria, putting additional conditions on any such attack. He initially backed a strike without stating any reservations.

We rate this a Half Flip.

Our Sources

News release, "Isakson statement on a military strike on Syria," Sept. 9, 2013.

News release, "Isakson statement on authorization of military action against Syria," Aug. 31, 2013.

CNN, "The Lead with Jake Tapper," "Sen. Isakson changes vote to no on Syria strike, now supports Russia proposal ‘if it’s for real," Sept. 9, 2013.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Johnny Isakson is a ‘no’ on Syria strike; John Lewis likely to join him," Daniel Malloy and Greg Bluestein, Sept. 10, 2013.

Email interviews, Lauren Culbertson, spokeswoman, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Sept. 11 and 12, 2013.

Phone interview, Kerwin Swint, political science professor, Kennesaw State University, Sept. 10, 2013.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "In Georgia delegation, Chambliss makes lonely case for Syria strikes," Daniel Malloy, Sept. 5, 2013.

AJC, Political Insider blog, "Don't assume Isakson's support for Syria strike is a sure thing," Daniel Malloy, Sept. 4, 2013.

The Washington Post, "Obama says U.S. will take military action against Syria, pending Congress’s approval, Ernesto Londoño, Aug. 31, 2013., "Isakson: ‘No’ on Syria Strike," Sept. 9, 2013.

Telephone interview with Jason Pye, Sept. 10, 2013.

WSB-TV, Channel 2 Action News interview with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Sept. 10, 2013.

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