The answers to these and the other questions that will arise with regard to Syrian policy will begin to define areas of agreement and disagreement in a Republican Party whose foreign policy consensus has been frayed by a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the emergence of new voices within the party.
As others have learned from past debates about using military force, there are potentially serious political consequences later to the words said and votes taken now. None of these politicians can know now how their actions will be judged in two or three years. Inevitably, some will then find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion, whether among GOP primary voters or the electorate at large.
Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2002 vote as a senator to authorize the invasion of Iraq, which seemed relatively safe at the time, proved enormously costly when she sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Her support provided Obama, who had opposed the war, an opening to grass-roots liberal activists.
Obama’s stuttering week, in which he surprised his own advisers and the rest of the world by putting seemingly imminent military action on hold and calling for congressional approval, has focused renewed attention on his leadership — which is why he has so much to lose if he is rebuffed.
The coming debate in Congress will provide Obama with an opportunity not just to argue for a limited strike — a “shot across the bow” of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as he put it in an interview on PBS’s “NewsHour” last week — but also to provide greater clarity to the administration’s overall Syrian strategy.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry has been the administration’s most forceful advocate for retaliation over the alleged Aug. 21 sarin gas attack, as he demonstrated with a speech Friday and again Sunday while making the rounds of the morning talk shows, but that is a role rightly reserved for a president at moments like this. Obama’s Saturday statement in the Rose Garden presumably was a beginning, not an ending.
As Obama makes that case, how will Republicans, particularly those with presidential aspirations, respond? There are a variety of questions for them to answer. Do they support military action as retaliation for the recent attack? Do they accept the evidence of the use of chemical weapons or doubt U.S. and other intelligence findings? Do they think the limited military action under consideration would be insufficient and therefore unwise? If that is the case, what kind of military action do they favor? Do they oppose all military intervention in Syria? If so, what would an effective strategy be toward Syria?