The Senate Syria Hawks Who Got Cold Feet

By Garance Franke-Ruta
Goran Tomasevic/REUTERS

The more the Obama Administration makes its case for the use of military force against Syria to enforce the international norm against using chemical weapons, the more Republicans hate the idea. Republican opposition to intervening in Syria has jumped from 40 percent to 70 percent over just the past week, according to Pew Research data presented today, while Democratic opposition only inched up from 48 to 53 percent. And despite being a "conscience vote," it seems likely that when all is said and done party affiliation will come into play as members of Congress consider the president's proposed course of action and decide how to cast their votes.

Case in point: A small handful of the avowed GOP opponents of the Senate authorization for use of force have a history of being outspoken critics of the president for not being more aggressive on the Syria question. These are their stories. (Emphasis added throughout in italics.)

Hawk: Ted Cruz of Texas

War cry: "U.S. foreign policy should be directed at one central purpose: protecting the vital national security interests of the United States. Arming potential al-Qaida rebels is not furthering those interests, but there is something that is: preventing Syria's large stockpile of chemical weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. ... Right now we need to develop a clear, practical plan to go in, locate the weapons, secure or destroy them, and then get out. We might work in concert with our allies, but this needs to be an operation driven by the mission, not by a coalition. The United States should be firmly in the lead to make sure the job is done right, but our British allies, for example, are actively bolstering the units that could be used for chemical weapons removal. President Obama needs to assure us that the dangerous, arbitrary cuts to our defense budget caused by sequester have not eroded our ability to execute this vital mission." -- Congressional Record, June 20.

Walk-back: "I think a military attack is a mistake .... They're beginning from the wrong objective because this attack is not based on defending U.S. national security. It is not based on defending Americans or our allies, rather it is -- it is explicitly framed by President Obama, by Secretary Kerry as a defense of what they call international norms. And I don't think that's the job of our military, to be defending amorphous international norms." -- ABC News' This Week, September 8

Flip-flop type: Half-twist. Cruz has been opposed to arming the rebels in Syria, whose al-Qaeda ties he said made planned U.S. support for them "a recipe for disaster." "Don't give weapons to people who hate us," he said in June, so even given his flip-flop on using the military to prevent chemical weapons from falling into the wrong hands, one imagines an AUMF that includes greater support for the rebels, as the Senate version does in its non-binding amendments, is something he'd oppose.

Hawk: Marco Rubio of Florida

War cry: "According to administration reports and the assessments of some of our closest allies, chemical weapons have been introduced into the Syrian conflict. It's clear the 'red line' drawn by President Obama has now been crossed. The time for passive engagement in this conflict must come to an end .... We must not allow Assad to continue violating all international norms by using these vile weapons and allowing Syria to descend further into chaos and instability. This will have disastrous consequences for U.S. interests for decades to come." -- Official statement, April 25.

Walk-back: "[T]hose who argue that what happens in Syria is none of our business are wrong. And that is why I have, for over two years, urged the president to pursue a more robust engagement in the hopes of helping the Syrian people replace Assad with a stable, secular and moderate government. However, while I have long argued forcefully for engagement in empowering the Syrian people, I have never supported the use of U.S. military force in the conflict. And I still don’t. I remain unconvinced that the use of force proposed here will work. The only thing that will prevent Assad from using chemical weapons in the future is for the Syrian people to remove him from power. The strike the administration wants us to approve I do not believe furthers that goal." -- U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Sept. 4

Flip-flop Type: Backwards half-twist. Unlike Cruz, Rubio wants the U.S. to help the rebels take out Assad. So he's arguing that he opposes the AUMF because it does not go far enough, and at the same time that he's opposed to using the U.S. military directly to overthrow him. Obama's "red line" comment in August 2012 did not include a specific action plan. "We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people," Obama said at the time. "We have been very clear to the Assad regime -- but also to other players on the ground -- that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation." Rubio says the Assad regime crossed that line in April. Whatever it meant.

Hawk: James Inhofe of Oklahoma

War cry: "Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his fellow Syrians has clearly crossed President Obama's self-imposed 'red line' and marks a significant turning point in a tragic chapter in the region's history. Without American leadership, the situation will continue its downward spiral....

"It's more important now than ever that President Obama step up and exhibit the leadership required of the commander in chief .... Continued inaction by the president, after establishing a clear red line, will embolden Assad and his benefactors in Tehran to continue their brutal assault against the Syrian people." --USA Today op-ed, "Obama can't wish away Syrian crisis," May 9.

Walk-back: "I don't consider [Obama's] current calls a fulfillment to my request then, nor my requests of today. In the time that has passed since I called for this strategy, more than 30,000 additional Syrians, including young children, have been murdered by Assad .... Part of a long-term strategy would include reversing course of the president's past 4 1/2 years of budget cuts." -- Newsmax, September 5

Flip-flop type: Full twist. Inhofe says now that his September 5 call for Obama to “follow through on what we say and ensure the security of our allies and partners" was not about Syria but about reversing the sequester and other cuts in the military. Inhofe wrote in May that Obama's red line had been crossed, but now argues America can't do anything about it: "The state of our military today cannot afford another war .... Now the President is proposing another contingency operation without even a hint of reversing course on his irresponsible defense cuts that will continue over the next nine years. He cannot have it both ways – gutting our military and still expecting it to protect our national security. "

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/09/the-senate-syria-hawks-who-got-cold-feet/279489/