It’s not hard to imagine the story of Syria and the GOP going something like this:
In a vote reflecting the dramatic shift toward a libertarian, non-interventionist foreign policy, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to deny President Barack Obama the authority he sought to use military force in Syria. In the Senate, more Republicans voted with Rand Paul, the upper chamber’s leading non-interventionist, than with John McCain, the leading hawk. The votes not only provided a stinging rebuke to the White House, but also signaled yet again the evolution of the GOP away from the internationalist party it has been for decades. Blah, blah, Rand Paul. Blah, blah, Justin Amash. Blah, blah, Ted Cruz.
It’s a good storyline. And there’s little doubt that there are more non-interventionist voices inside the Republican Party today than ten years ago. But non-interventionism or neo-isolationism or whatever it’s called these days doesn’t explain the Republicans on Syria.
The vast majority of congressional Republicans are not so much opposed to intervention as a matter of principle as they are opposed to this intervention, at this time, under this president. Their argument is simple: President Obama has failed to lead on Syria for more than two years and we don’t trust him to do so now.
“The problem is – this is our business. The United States is a global power and the power in the world capable of influencing the outcome in a positive way,” Rubio said in a telephone interview Thursday morning. The chaos in Syria, Rubio contends, is not a result of too much U.S. involvement, but too little.
“What’s happening in Syria is a consequence of disengagement,” he says. “The reason why we don’t have better options in Syria is because we haven’t been more engaged. If two years ago we had made the decision we’re going to find some rebel groups in Syria who are moderate, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure they’re the most capable, effective and organized fighting force on the ground, I’d think that a military strike right now would be a much better option than it is. Because now we don’t know who the beneficiaries of a military strike are going to be but it’s very possible that it could be radical al Qaeda elements who now control significant portions of that country.”
Rubio gave a speech at the Brookings Institution in April 2012 laying out the case for the continued projection of American power and values.
Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas who serves as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, shares those concerns. “The president has brought us to this situation by failing show any leadership, failing to have any strategy for Syria and for the Middle East,” he says. “The president is talking about driving by and lobbing some bombs. It doesn’t work that way. There is no clearly defined mission, so I don’t see this achieving anything.” The president’s case, he adds, “makes no sense.”
It’s easy to understand why so many Republicans are making that argument.
Consider: The president is proposing a “limited” and “tailored” and “narrow” intervention that would send a message to Bashar Assad. But while his advisers have likened Assad to Adolf Hitler and though the president has been saying for a year that Assad “must go,” the military action he contemplates would leave the Syrian dictator in power. The president says the stakes are very high and that U.S. credibility is on the line. Despite this, his advisers say he will act if only if Congress grants him authority he claims he doesn’t need. In remarks from St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday, the president said he bypassed Congress and used military force in Libya because the urgency of the situation there, with approximately 1,000 dead, required it. But he went to Congress for authorization on Syria, with more than 100,000 dead, after military leaders told him he had the time. John Kerry is claiming he “opposed” the Iraq war despite voting for it. When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, was asked what the administration wanted in its resolution, he said: “I can’t answer that – what we’re seeking.”
It’s contradictions like these, not the supposed drift toward non-interventionism, that best explain the opposition of so many congressional Republicans.
“The isolationist, libertarian crowd is quite small,” says Devin Nunes, a California Republican on the House Intelligence Committee who opposes authorizing the use of force. “What they are is good politicians – jumping in front of an 80-20 issue and trying to own it.”
Nunes, who has drafted an alternative resolution on Syria, says few of his colleagues are sympathetic to non-interventionist views. “It’s really only a handful and their actual beliefs are dangerous for the country,” he says. “If anyone listened to them it would have serious, long-term, negative consequences for the United States.”
McCaul, who says he is “not an isolationist,” agrees that it’s a small minority of the House Republican conference. “We’re not all in this pacifist Rand Paul camp – not at all.”
One House Republican leader put it this way. “The largest group in the House, by far, have a strong deference to American power and a belief in strong executive action on national security,” he says. “There’s just not a lot of confidence in Obama.”