Congressional Debate Over Syria Will Be Test Of Divided GOP

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Chris Usher / CBS News / Getty Images

John McCain on Face the Nation on Sep. 1, 2013 in Washington, DC.

By seeking the approval of Congress to bomb Syria, President Barack Obama may speed forward another conflict: the battle between the warring isolationist and interventionist factions of the Republican Party, as evidenced by statements from both sides in recent days.

Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham have made clear that their vote on the measure is contingent on Obama committing to potentially broader military action than he has already proposed. “We have to have a plan. It has to be a strategy. It can’t just be, in my view, pinprick cruise missiles,” McCain said on Sunday, in an interview with CBS’ Face the Nation.

On the other side, the isolationist wing sees the coming debate as a great soapbox to establish their power in Congress, and shift American policy overseas. “I think all of the bad things you can imagine are all more likely if we get involved in the Syrian civil war,” said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, in an interview with NBC’s Meet The Press. “I think the line in the sand should be that America gets involved when American interests are threatened. I don’t see American interests involved on either side of this Syrian war.”

(MORE: White House Talks Strategy for Confronting Congress on Syria)

Democrats are just as divided as Republicans, with many doves expressing reservations about engaging in the conflict at all, or simply the open-ended nature of Obama’s request. But for the GOP, the foreign policy battle has become somewhat existential—a threat to party cohesion on domestic issues as well.

The heat was turned up on the long-simmering conflict earlier this year when Paul held his long filibuster on the Senate floor against the Obama administration’s drone policies. This summer, Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made it a rolling boil with a two-week back and forth over the NSA’s surveillance programs, a conflict that ended up becoming surprisingly personal.

In Democratic circles, after the initial frustration of Obama appearing to outsource part of his job to Congress, there is an element of glee at the choice facing the Republican Party. And while some in the White House are savoring the Republican predicament, White House Senior Advisor Dan Pfeiffer said the politics are irrelevant. “This issue is on a different level than the traditional fights we have with the GOP, so we don’t view it in the context of our other fights,” he told TIME. “This is a critical vote for the country and should be above political point scoring.”

(MORE: Three Reasons Congress May Not Approve War in Syria)

But that won’t stop the debate from roiling in the Republican Party, with some consultants warning Republicans not to take the bait. “The framing of ‘how does this trap the GOP’ coming from the WH, Democratic operatives and Obama’s fanboys tells Republicans in Congress this is as much about bailing out Obama’s failed policies as it is about stopping Assad,” said Republican political consultant Rick Wilson. “Axelrod et al swiftly framed this as a battle against the one enemy with whom Barack Obama will wage unrestricted warfare: the GOP.”

Others are seizing the moment. Dan Senor, the former chief spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and an advisor to the Romney/Ryan presidential campaign, said the GOP’s isolationist wing is a temporary fad, a byproduct of being out of power. “Even in a war as unpopular as Vietnam, McGovern’s “Come Home, America” backfired badly,” Senor said. “So has virtually every similar message since then. Tea Party critics of America’s current military operations should look at how well served congressional Republicans were in the 1990s by opposing intervention in the Balkans. Is there any evidence that this opposition helped conservatives?”

For Republicans, this month’s vote on Syria will be a test case for the new GOP. It remains unclear whether the divided Republican Party can agree to disagree without personal animosity taking over the debate, and potentially sewing further discord with the 2016 election fast approaching.

WATCH: How Past Presidents Have Announced War

42 comments
muchtoofun1
muchtoofun1

@TIME @TIMEPolitics It's better to be blown to bits by bombs, bleed out from bullet holes or be poisoned by chemicals? None sound good to me

dentay16
dentay16

@TIME @TIMEPolitics If O, who hasn't reached out to his own party, cd unify D's, only a few dozen R hawks wd be needed support his new war.

maggieatlas
maggieatlas

@TIME @TIMEPolitics I ask again why the USA why not the already powerful wealthy Arab neighbours who will not be seen as invading infidels?

DavidStrayer
DavidStrayer

The Republicans are ill equipped to deal with any international crisis such as this.  Their fundamental divisions notwithstanding, the non-isolationist wing of the GOP largely remains mired in a cold war mentality when it comes to confrontations.  For them, it's always a matter of choosing sides, after which it's "us" or "them" = "good" or "evil".  We intervene to help the "us" group and/or to hinder the "them" group.

All the corollaries of this turned out to be disastrous.  It was not true that the enemy of my enemy is my friend (Afghanistan mujaheeden vs. Soviets; Iraq vs. Iran).  It was also not true that every war was necessarily a reason for us to expend lives and treasure defending someone just because he was not a Communist (Vietnam).

Even when there was a Soviet Union, this simplistic mindset never accounted for the complexity of countries like India who never really wanted to be in one camp or the other, but were forced by this mindset into the "them" category.

Now that there is no primary adversary, the GOP neoconservative mindset is even more pernicious.  There is almost never an "us", and there are tons of "thems".  The sectarian, tribal and ethnic conflicts that roil the world are not so easily categorized.  Sunnis vs. Shiites doesn't offer us an obvious reason to get involved, nor does it promise any useful outcome to our involvement.

None of this is to say we shouldn't punish Assad for gassing his own people.  But it is to say that the use of American military in areas in which our strategic national interests aren't necessarily at stake is fraught with pitfalls and quite likely to be subject to the law of unintended consequences.

It would be great if other countries didn't go around trying to conquer, kill and intimidate their citizens and neighbors.  But they do.  From that fact, it doesn't necessarily follow that we need to get involved each time this occurs.

jmac
jmac

The Rand Paul quotes don't include his quote on how Assad is protecting Christians.  He's heavily into sucking up to the evangelical vote - he even invited Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network into his home for a special half hour program - At Home with Rand Paul.    As Time continually gives us posts on evangelicals you'd think that might be an important part of just where Rand Paul is coming from.  

jmac
jmac

Politicto:    "If Congress doesn't back him up, his already troubled second term would be dealt another blow in the twin arenas of domestic and foreign politics . ."

Really Politico?   Since Day One of Obama's presidency, the conservatives have made it clear that their objective is for him to fail. Why should this vote be any different?   Why would this be different than the economy - which is MORE important than this vote.   HIs "already troubled second term" is the direct result of conservatives playing politics - on Benghazi, on the debt ceiling and the economy,  on the IRS, on . . . . etc, etc.  

Will this vote be any different?  Will this be the magic vote where Republicans decide maybe they need to figure out just who in the heck they are and what they stand for?


roknsteve
roknsteve

I still think Al Qaeda has done this to get us to attack Syria and I've read claims from people in the Middle East who say the same thing.   

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

The GOP base has spent so much time railing against "Muslims" that when a conflict comes up that isn't cut and dried, us against them, they short circuit.


RobertAnnable
RobertAnnable

This is getting interesting. The article quotes Zionist neo-con Dan Senor, whose wife is the head of AIPAC in Jerusalem, and the GOP's other Zionist neo-cons (Kristol, Feith, Perle, Wolfowitz and Abrams) who fabricated the lies to justify the Iraq War also are having fits with this since they want to force Obama to attack Iran for Israel. I'm also sure that neo-cons Cheney and Bolton are livid because it finish the neo-con control of the GOP. Israel is upset since they don't want an attack on Iran to go before the US Congress. Great move, Obama!!

RodneyAtkins
RodneyAtkins

"...potentially sewing further discord...":  Uhh, perhaps "sowing" is what they mean. Does Time have 0 copy editors now?

my-new-life-in-asia
my-new-life-in-asia

Wars should never be wages for humanitarian purposes. It sounds cynical and cruel, but it is the only viable solution. The only reason for carrying out military interventions is when a sovereign state invades another sovereign state. 

The system of humanitarian interventions may appear morally superior, but in reality it contracts itself. Because it presupposes that the United States alone (or its allies) has the right to judge when a humanitarian intervention exists, and that it alone has the right to attack another sovereign country to solve this country's domestic problems. This is not a viable system, because it legitimises American hegemony and warfare, and it creates international chaos and instability. We should cherish peace as the highest good of mankind.  

scottyisgaga
scottyisgaga

It will be interesting. I think the House will block every single vote coming up. including syria.

arvay
arvay

While this kerfuffle fuffles would be a very good time for Russia and Iran to make sure that Syria obliterates the Saudi/Qatar al Qaeda/Chechen force. Many Syrians initially opposed to the regime are repelled by their would-be saviors and just want the war to stop. Time to deliver very advanced conventional weapons, and some Russian crews to operate some of them if necessary. 

Meanwhile, we can watch McCain and Christie attack Rand Paul for opposing their strategy -- which would boost the organization -- al Qaeda -- that sent those planes into the World Trade center. Rand -- we're counting on your to say that loud, clear and often. Chris, you still know those widows and orphans. right?

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

An over-the-top obnoxious quote from Rick Wilson? How utterly...predictable. 

sahmad
sahmad

@TIME @TIMEPolitics how many wars will the US fight?From the 'right' wars 2 the 'wrong' wars 2 'oops' y did we get into this wars?

Ohiolib
Ohiolib

The last thing the US needs now is another expensive, unplanned war of choice. There's no way for us to do anything significant in Syria without it blowing up in our face. Sadly, the only thing we can do here is let the Syrians kill each other.

ThomasMcKeddie
ThomasMcKeddie

what Steven implied I cant believe that any body can profit $8807 in one month on the internet. more w­w­w.B­a­y­9­3.ℂ­o­m

don_peck
don_peck

@TIME @TIMEPolitics I could support something here if I did not know 100% this will blow up in our face and drag us into another no win war!

DavidStrayer
DavidStrayer

@RobertAnnable 

It would seem that the neoconservative push to get us involved in Syria against Assad reflects their desire to diminish the power of the Shiite-Alawite (Assad)-Hezbollah-Iran axis.  These (especially Hezbollah-Iran) are virulently anti-Israel.  Unfortunately, the consequence of doing this is to empower the Sunni-alQaeda axis, which isn't necessarily to our or Israel's benefit either.

The Israelis know this, and have largely kept quiet.  

This is a situation in which there are no good guys in Syria and the neoconservative mindset of dividing the world into camps of pro-US and anti-US doesn't apply.  (In fact, it never did, really.)

Perhaps Assad should be punished somehow for using poison gas.  Perhaps we simply need to make the point to him forcefully that even in war there are things that are permitted and things that aren't.  

It's certainly the case that if Assad had bombed those 1500 people to death there'd be little outcry.  Poison gas is a big step in the wrong direction.

At the same time, it's worth asking whether there's any resolution -- other than continued conflict -- in Syria that is to our advantage.  I, personally, can't think of one.  Can you?

manlyman
manlyman

Wallow in your denial til your heads cave in libs, this is about obama. His baby, his dillema, his fkup, whatever you want to call it. He's proving for the umpteenth that he is an absolute amateur at, well, everything.

manlyman
manlyman

Yeah it was ok for the first 98,000 or so deaths, but then they brought out the chems....

Donplus
Donplus

@manlyman Read from montrose400 and believe it, the President never wanted to go to war - he is just using the scene to break up the GOP for the up coming election campaign 

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@manlyman Well he is pretty good at beating republicans into submission (exceeding 51% of the vote in two presidential elections for the first time since DDE), you really have to give him that.

But to my point, idiotic ramblings we expect from the likes of you but TIME could probably find a more serious person to quote than Rick Wilson. 

jmac
jmac

@Donplus @manlyman No president should ever want to go to war.  The GOP has done it's own breaking up - it's not Democrat's (or Obama's) fault they are in limbo.   The GOP can't start crying impeachment if Obama dares go it alone, then cry he's trapping them ( or as Zeke has written "browbeating Congress") when they are asked to do their job.