Republican's intraparty divisions on Syria reflect a GOP roiled as much by an overwhelming distrust for President Obama’s foreign policy leadership as by a rising isolationist wing that is capitalizing on this sentiment to exert greater influence on party decisions.
The GOP’s unusually dovish opposition to intervening in Syria, as expressed by a vocal cadre of Tea Party-affiliated Republicans, has suggested a possible drift and retreat from the muscular, internationalist foreign policy that has defined the party since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. But congressional Republicans rejecting a Democratic president’s request for an authorization to use military force would not be unprecedented, and GOP insiders say their party’s hesitancy to back Obama’s Syria resolution is complicated.
Conservative activist Jon Fleischman, a California Republican who publishes the Flash Report cited three factors governing GOP sentiment on Syria, and foreign policy generally, at this juncture in the Obama era. “One is the [budget] deficit which now [calls] attention to the costs of military action,” he said. “The other is complete lack or faith or trust in Obama. Finally there is wariness of entanglement in the Middle East, without an understandable foreign policy there.”
In interviews with the Washington Examiner over the Labor Day weekend, an array of Republican operatives conceded that the libertarian wing of the GOP was enjoying fresh prominence and influence over the GOP’s approach to foreign policy and national security, aided in part by revelations about the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance programs and even the scandal of Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative groups.
This wing had quietly coexisted with establishment Republicans since at least 1980, in a coalition preserved by commonality on fiscal issues. But isolationist Republicans have gained a louder national voice, and important sway with GOP lawmakers, through affiliation with the Tea Party and the media attention showered on this conservative activist movement. Creeping regret over the Iraq war and former President George W. Bush’s preemptive war doctrine also aided their rise.
In Congress, this group has been defined by Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, of Texas, and Mike Lee, of Utah, who have focused on limiting government policy to reflect a stricter interpretation of the Constitution; and libertarian-leaning members like Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who led an effort to curtail the power of the National Security Agency; and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., son of iconic former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
“Beyond the Rand Paul group, there are many who wonder why it’s in America's interest to continue to be the world’s policeman, especially given the costs of our conflicts in the Middle East and our rising debt,” said one long-time Republican operative.
But Republican insiders argue that this faction of the GOP remains a distinct minority, and that the party is still one that largely supports the United States acting aggressively on the world stage, diplomatically and militarily if necessary to protect the interests of the U.S. and its allies. Animating Republican opposition to involvement in Syria, these insiders contend, is Obama himself.
Republicans have long criticized Obama’s typically soft approach on world affairs, charging him with abdicating leadership to other countries and deferring to international institutions like the United Nations. That, combined with what many in the party describe as Obama’s completely ineffective Syria strategy, have led even hawkish Republicans to oppose military action against President Bashar Assad for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 Syrians, including hundreds of children.
“The administration has failed to make their case,” a House Republican aide said. “They believe Assad has misbehaved and must be punished. But, they have yet to describe what might be achieved from our action. Even [Secretary of State John] Kerry’s speech last Friday suggested this would have very little impact.”
Ironically, Obama has talked tough on Syria, using the sort of rhetoric that normally might elicit support from congressional Republicans.
The president has made clear that he has no intention of waiting for the U.N. and has left open the possibility of launching a military strike against Syria even if Congress refuses to authorize one, warning that failure to act could damage U.S. credibility and embolden countries like Iran to threaten Israel and continue development of weapons of mass destruction.
But even that potential area of common ground, Republicans say, was undermined by Obama’s 11th-hour decision to seek Congressional authorization for attacking Syria after previously claiming he didn't need it. Many Republicans feel as though Obama’s decision to involve Congress is an attempt to gain political cover after polls showed overwhelming public opposition to military action. The president wants the GOP to bail him out after Assad called his “red line” bluff, Republicans say.
“There are plenty of conservatives who are not isolationists who don’t trust Obama to conduct foreign affairs. They’re not comfortable risking American troops with Obama as commander-in-chief,” said a Republican operative with relationships on Capitol Hill. “It’s possible for them to trust a Democratic president, but not this guy.