WASHINGTON — Backing President Barack Obama’s plea for military action against Syria could haunt Senate Republicans thinking hard about a White House bid in 2016.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a leading anti-interventionist within the GOP ranks, was steadfast in his opposition on Tuesday, saying he was unlikely to back even a narrow resolution giving Obama the authority to respond militarily to the Syrian government.
Paul tangled with Secretary of State John Kerry at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing, repeatedly asking the top diplomat for assurances that U.S. military action wouldn’t hurt Israel or destabilize the region.
A libertarian favorite, Paul also engaged in a fierce debate over the constitutional power to use military force, and whether Obama would ignore an unfavorable vote in Congress. Kerry sought to reassure Paul that the administration didn’t consider congressional action meaningless.
Paul told Kerry: “If you do not say explicitly that you will abide by this vote, you’re making a joke of us. You’re making us into theater.”
The administration says it has proof that the Assad regime used deadly chemical weapons in an attack on Damascus suburbs and must respond. It places the number killed at 1,429 people, including 426 children. However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the death toll at 502.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a vocal critic of Syria’s Bashar Assad and a proponent of arming the rebels, criticized the Obama administration for failing to heed his call and the pleas of others to act two years ago.
“When America ignores these problems, these problems don’t ignore us,” Rubio told senior administration officials at the Senate hearing. “Yes, this is a horrible incident where perhaps a 1,000 people died, but before this incident 100,000 people had died … and nothing happened.”
The Syria vote is complicated for potential Republican presidential candidates, who hardly want to appear weak on national security but fear the criticism if the United States is drawn into a protracted conflict or limited military steps prove unsuccessful in the 2-year-old civil war.
Any Republican who supports the use of force resolution essentially will be siding with Obama, who is despised in conservative circles, and a vote in favor could anger more isolationist Republicans who are wary of getting involved in another military conflict after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The votes could dog Republican candidates with voters in early primary states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Even the most nuanced explanation for a vote could be undermined by events on the ground.
Yet if Republicans with White House ambitions oppose the resolution, they could be accused of giving Syrian President Bashar Assad a pass after his regime used chemical weapons.
Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said a vote in favor of the resolution would be the equivalent of “a purchase of stock over the long-term in Obama’s decision-making on Syria.”
“Any Republican may go into a vote thinking, ‘I have given authority for a limited scope of action to the president,’ but the reality is you’re buying stock in the president’s current decisions on Syria and also his future actions in any escalation that may occur,” Schmidt said.
Polls show public opposition to U.S. military intervention in Syria, regardless of whether Syria’s government used chemical weapons on its people, and doubts about airstrikes across party lines.
A war vote can make or break a candidate. Just ask Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In the 2008 Democratic primary, Obama used the October 2002 vote for the Iraq war as a cudgel on Clinton, who along with John Edwards voted to give President George W. Bush the broad authority to invade Iraq. Edwards said his vote was a mistake; Clinton stood by her decision — and never recovered with strong anti-war Democratic voters.
Clinton, a potential Democratic candidate in 2016, has not spoken publicly about Obama’s attempt to win congressional support for a military strike against Syria. But an aide to Clinton said Tuesday that she supports the president’s effort in Congress to pursue a targeted response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
In 2004, the first presidential election since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Democratic primary voters rejected the anti-war candidate, Howard Dean, and nominated John Kerry, the decorated Vietnam War veteran who had backed the Iraq war. Kerry was perceived as the stronger candidate on national security against the incumbent president, but he stumbled in explaining his Iraq war votes, saying he voted for an $87 billion war supplemental “before I voted against it.” Bush prevailed in the election.
For Republicans, the debate over Syria foreshadows a fierce argument in the party over the role of U.S. foreign policy and military involvement after Iraq and Afghanistan. The divisions have been simmering for months.
Paul conducted a lengthy Senate filibuster in March to raise concerns over the president’s use of aerial drones to kill suspected terrorists, rallying libertarians within the party. Some establishment Republicans opposed the filibuster and pushed back against criticism of the National Security Agency’s collection of hundreds of millions of U.S. phone records, saying it was needed to keep Americans safe.
In July, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called the libertarian strain within the GOP a “very dangerous thought” more than a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks. Paul responded, saying that Christie was worried about the “dangers of freedom,” instead of being concerned about losing those freedoms.
As Obama has pushed for the U.S. to intervene in Syria, the GOP divisions have emerged.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has expressed skepticism about possible intervention, saying the administration has yet to make a forceful case that it would protect U.S. national security interests.
The Syria question is easier to avoid outside Washington.
Christie, asked about the Syrian conflict on Tuesday, told reporters that the “use of chemical weapons is something that just is intolerable for civilized society,” but he said he would “let the policymaking be done by the people who are getting the bulk of the briefing on this, which is our federal representatives.”