How the Syria Debate Is Splitting Both Parties

Factions of Republicans and Democrats are on either side of the intervention debate -- but for very different reasons.

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gather in Damascus. (Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters)

What will happen when Congress votes on Syria? At this point, nobody knows, though President Obama said Tuesday he is confident his request for military authorization will be approved, and with Republican House leaders’ backing, some degree of congressional momentum appeared to be building in his favor.

But what is already apparent is that the issue has laid bare stark divides within both political parties. Some Democrats, haunted by Iraq, are staunchly anti-intervention, while others, haunted by Rwanda, are strongly in favor; some Republicans, inspired by former Representative Ron Paul, decry military adventurism, while others, in the mode of the George W. Bush Administration, see a need to act against a rogue regime.

Most members of Congress are still undecided or leaning against a strike, making the coming week a crucial one for both the administration and those who seek to stop what they see as a march to war. (According to the Washington Post’s ongoing tally of votes, as of Tuesday afternoon, the “yes” votes included 20 senators -- 11 Democrats, nine Republicans -- and 17 representatives -- nine Democrats, eight Republicans. The “no” votes included four senators, all Republican, and 36 representatives -- 14 Democrats, 22 Republicans.) Here is a sampling of the arguments being offered by the major camps in the debate.

The Pro-Intervention Democrats
This group is led by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, obviously. It also includes the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Cynics charge that Obama blundered by creating a "red line" on chemical weapons that he now must enforce. But these Democrats make the case that international norms against chemical-weapons use must be respected. Pelosi said Tuesday that the “humanitarian disaster” in Syria required a military response, which she emphasized would be “targeted, tailored, of short duration, and send the message that is necessary.” She called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons “outside the circle of civilized behavior,” adding, “Weapons of mass destruction, deterring their use, is a pillar of our national security strategy.” For a more detailed explanation of the Democratic case for intervention, read my interview last week with former Representative Tom Perriello.

The Anti-Intervention Democrats
Representative Alan Grayson, the liberal firebrand from Florida, launched a petition against attacking Syria last week and says he will whip his colleagues against the resolution. As of Tuesday afternoon, the petition at had more than 25,000 signatures. (Don’t miss Dave Weigel’s excellent recent story in Slate on how Grayson has become effective from his perch as a junior member of the House minority by teaming up with civil-libertarian Republicans.) Grayson makes the case that U.S. interests are not at stake and that taxpayer dollars would be better spent domestically. “This literally has nothing to do with us,” Grayson said on CNN on Sunday. “We are not the world’s policeman. We can’t afford this anymore, these military adventures that lead us into more than a decade of war. It’s wrong.” Others have argued that a supposedly limited strike is a slippery slope to broader involvement and that there is not enough international backing for a strike. “The reality [is] that military attacks result in retaliation and an escalating conflict,” said Minnesota Representative Rick Nolan, who called for Assad to be tried in international court instead.

The Pro-Intervention Republicans
The GOP’s most reliable hawks, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are leading the Republican charge in favor of a strike, and they were joined Tuesday by the top two Republicans in the House, Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. (Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is the only congressional leader of either party who’s yet to take a position on the Syria authorization.) Cantor’s statement called Syria a “terrorist state” and warned that American inaction could cause “further instability in a region of vital interest to the United States.” He also cited the need to counteract Iran and Hezbollah and argued that “America’s credibility is on the line.” While the interventionist Democrats tend to emphasize the limited nature of the strike, McCain and his GOP allies have called for a broader mandate and an explicit objective of toppling Assad from power. The Republicans also have emphasized that it is up to Obama, not to them, to sell the American people and the Congress on the prospect of intervention. “Everyone understands that it is an uphill battle to pass a resolution, and the speaker expects the White House to provide answers to members’ questions and take the lead on any whipping effort,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Tuesday.

The Anti-Intervention Republicans
Senator Rand Paul and Representative Justin Amash have stepped into their roles as heirs to the anti-war Republican legacy of Paul’s father. (Amash attended Sunday's classified briefing on Syria wearing a Darth Vader T-shirt.) Opponents call them isolationists; the Paulites see themselves standing in the way of a powerful military-industrial complex that wants to cut off debate. On Meet the Press on Sunday, Paul argued that American action would exacerbate Syrian suffering, not ameliorate it, and could increase the likelihood that Israel is attacked. He warned that the “Islamic rebels” can’t necessarily be trusted, and said Obama’s setting of a “red line” was a “grave mistake.” “When you set a red line that was not a good idea in the beginning with, and now you're going to adhere to it or try to show your machismo, I think then you're trying to save face and really adding bad policy to bad policy,” Paul said. Many congressional observers expect the House vote to fall along similar lines to the vote in July on an amendment offered by Amash that would have limited domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency. The Amash amendment just barely failed, with a final tally of 217 against, 205 in favor; those voting for it included 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats, a remarkably even cross-partisan split that testifies to the rise of civil-libertarian sentiment in both parties.

The “Yes-But” Caucus

Though we put McCain in the group that favors a strike, he belongs to another group of lawmakers as well: those whose support is conditional. He has said he will not vote for the authorization currently proposed by the White House. Rather, McCain wants the Senate, which began its consideration of the measure with a Tuesday afternoon hearing of the Foreign Relations Committee, to amend the measure to make it broader. But McCain is working at cross purposes to some Democrats who hope to make the authorization narrower instead. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy has said the administration resolution is “too open-ended,” and Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen has called for amending it to include an expiration date and an express prohibition on ground troops.