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Opinion What are GOP leaders doing on Syria?

Republican leaders in the House and Senate are beginning to show their hand on Syria. Their message is: We’re not going to stop you (even if you want to be stopped) but you’ll have to make the case directly to members.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (Ohio) put out a statement:

The Speaker offered his support for the president’s call to action, and encourages all Members of Congress to do the same.  Now, it is the president’s responsibility to make his case to the American people and their elected representatives. 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. All votes authorizing the use of military force are conscience votes for members, and passage will require direct, continuous engagement from the White House.

It is not unusual to forgo whipping the vote on matters of conscience like war and peace, so reading too much into that is a mistake. The second part of his statement, though, is critical, and lines up with what Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told me this morning: The president needs to convince the country he has a coherent policy. So far, he hasn’t done that.

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In the Senate, minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sounded a similar note: “I appreciate the President’s briefing today at the White House and would encourage him to continue updating the American people. While we are learning more about his plans, Congress and our constituents would all benefit from knowing more about what it is he thinks needs to be done-and can be accomplished-in Syria and the region.” Again, the president has to make his own case, himself.

It is bizarre, frankly, that a president who has often acted as if his own words work wonders is not himself be leaping before a nationwide audience. And it is even stranger that Democrats who support him aren’t asking him to do the same. If he thinks GOP hawks and Democratic loyalists are going to do the public persuasion for him, he’s mistaken. The president wanted people buy in on his decision to attack Syria, but apparently he figured he would only have to lobby quietly.

It must pain him to have to give a speech calling the country to arms. He was the president who was going to “end” wars. (He actually was handed a completed one in Iraq, retreated from a second in Afghanistan, and will have started military actions in Libya and Syria if he carries through now.) He told us a decade of war was ending. And in the case of Syria, he’s done nothing significant in over two years, telling the world and the country in essence we don’t have much stake there. He’s slashed the defense budget, which now doesn’t contain enough slack to pay for an attack he wants. That’s a lot of eating crow for any president, let alone this one who entered office with an air of moral superiority and an unearned Nobel Peace Prize.

Getting back to the GOP, what is also interesting is who isn’t leading. I just received a statement from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that he’ll be attending the hearing on Syria in the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Umm, is his attendance a big deal? Lots of members go to hearings. And why hasn’t he been visiting the White House, making statements, consulting with outside military experts and providing a case for action in Syria? You would think that the ambitious junior senator who has sounded the internationalist trumpet before would be leading on this issue. Instead he’s following.

In fact, his initial written statement sounded like he was going to join the Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) camp. In words usually deployed to signal refusal to endorse the White House’s desired outcome, he said, “The United States should only engage militarily when it is pursuing a clear and attainable national security goal. Military action taken simply to send a message or save face does not meet that standard.” That sounds like Rubio is skeptical that there is a national security goal.

Perhaps Rubio was just being cautious. However, if he shies away from this debate and/or votes “no,” Republicans will begin to wonder if the immigration debate has so shaken him that he feels compelled to back away from any position that aggravate the hard right. Like joining the Obamacare-shutdown squad, a turnaround in his foreign policy views would suggest he is running scared. That seems more like the reaction of a freshman senator nervous about re-election than a potential 2016 presidential candidate.