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The Right Vote

Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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The statesmanlike case for voting Yes on the congressional resolution to use force against the Assad regime has been made widely and well by conservative foreign policy thinkers. At the end, the case boils down to this: As a policy matter, a Yes vote may be problematic in all kinds of ways. But a No vote would likely be disastrous for the nation in very clear ways. Statesmanship requires choosing the problematic over the disastrous.

Assad

It’s true that Republicans on the Hill lack confidence in President Obama’s execution of the military action they are being asked to vote to authorize. So do conservative foreign and military policy experts, and so do we. But voting Yes doesn’t preclude criticizing—indeed, it makes it easier to constructively criticize—much of what President Obama has done and will do in Syria and in the Middle East. Indeed, if Republicans want to cast a broader vote of no confidence in President Obama’s conduct of foreign policy, there are other ways to do so, and we’d support many of them. But using this resolution to cast a vote of no confidence against Obama would empower those abroad making the case against placing confidence in the United States. That would be damaging. And in the real world, a vote against Obama will be seen as a vote for Bashar al-Assad, and for Vladimir Putin, and for the regime in Iran.

The fact is that Obama is the only president we have. We can’t abdicate our position in the world for the next three years. So Republicans will have to resist the temptation to weaken him when the cost is weakening the country. A party that for at least two generations has held high the banner of American leadership and strength should not cast a vote that obviously risks a damaging erosion of this country’s stature and credibility abroad.

Republicans on the Hill know this. The vast majority are not followers of Pat Buchanan or of Ron and Rand Paul. They don’t actually believe in abandoning our responsibilities, forsaking our allies, and trying to construct a Fortress America.

But they do believe the politics of this vote is awful. They believe, perhaps correctly, that President Obama has cynically thrown this ball into the lap of Congress in order to get Republican fingerprints on an action that may not succeed. They believe, correctly, that their constituents are against intervention. They believe, therefore, that the politically prudent vote is No.

They’re wrong. Winston Churchill noted that “the Muse of History must not be fastidious.” Likewise the Muse of editorialists. So we’ll be forgiven, we trust, for briefly laying out the crass political reasons why Republicans should vote Yes.

A Yes vote is in fact the easy vote. It’s actually close to risk-free. After all, it’s President Obama who is seeking the authorization to use force and who will order and preside over the use of force. It’s fundamentally his policy. Lots of Democrats voted in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war. When that war ran into trouble, it was President Bush and Republicans who paid the price. If the Syria effort goes badly, the public will blame President Obama, who dithered for two years, and who seems inclined to a halfhearted execution of any military campaign. If it goes well, Republicans can take credit for pushing him to act decisively, and for casting a tough vote supporting him when he asked for authorization to act.

A No vote is the risky vote. In fact, the risk is all on the side of voting No. The only thing that can get Obama off the hook now is for Republicans to deny him authorization for the use of force against the Assad regime. Then the GOP can be blamed for whatever goes wrong in Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, over the next months and years. And plenty will go wrong. It’s a Yes vote that gets Republicans in Congress off the hook.

A Yes vote seems to be statesmanlike. (Actually, it happens also to be statesmanlike, but we’re now talking politics.) Establishment foreign policy voices, including conservative ones, may not move voters—but they do have some pull in the media and with influentials across the country. Casting a “tough” political vote is a way for members of Congress to appear to be rising above mere party politics. In fact, many voters do like to think they’re voting for someone who has at least a touch of statesmanship, and so casting what appears superficially to be a politically perilous vote could well help the stature of Republicans with many of their constituents back home.

It’s true that a Yes vote will be temporarily unpopular with the base. To support Obama now may seem to invite primary opposition from challengers who would be more in tune with popular sentiment to stay out of the Syrian civil war. For a few weeks after the vote, Republicans will hear such rumblings. But at the end of the day, Republican primary voters are a pretty hawkish bunch. It’s hard to believe they’re going to end up removing otherwise conservative representatives or senators in favor of challengers who run on a platform whose key plank is that Republicans should have voted to let an Iran-supported, terror-backing dictator with American blood on his hands off the hook after he’s used chemical weapons. What’s more, primary elections are more than half a year away. Republican senators and congressmen will have plenty of time to reestablish their anti-Obama credentials by fighting Obama on Obama-care, immigration, the debt ceiling, and a host of other issues.

A Yes vote can also be explained as a vote to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Syria is an Iranian proxy. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons is a proxy for Iran’s ability to move ahead unimpeded in its acquisition of nuclear weapons. To bring this point home, soon after voting to authorize the use of force against the Assad regime, Republicans might consider moving an authorization for the use of force against the Iranian nuclear weapons program. They can explain that Obama’s dithering in the case of Syria shows the utility of unequivocally giving him the authority to act early with respect to Iran. An Iran debate would pretty much unite Republicans and conservatives and would help mitigate political problems arising from a Yes vote on Syria. The issue of Iran will most likely come to a head before Election Day 2014, probably even before primary elections earlier next year. An Iran resolution means the Syria vote won’t be the most important vote Republicans cast in this session of Congress—it won’t even be the most important foreign policy vote.

So, in the vote on the authorization to use force in Syria, Republicans’ self-interest coincides with the national interest. For reasons both fastidiously statesmanlike and crassly political, Yes is the right vote.

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