Home/Daniel Larison/The Politics of the Syrian War Vote

The Politics of the Syrian War Vote

Jim Antle surveys the pro- and anti-war coalitions in Congress in his new article on the main site. Here he speculates about Republican political calculations:

This time around, most of the political opportunists—especially on the Republican side—will want to take a pass on Obama’s war.

Antle may be right about this. Opposing intervention in Syria has been the big opportunity for Republicans that want to oppose Obama on foreign policy while getting on the right side of public opinion, and the vote on the resolution later this month would be the time to make the most of that. There is no obvious advantage for potential presidential candidates to be linked to an unpopular attack on Syria, and opportunists won’t want to be connected with it if a “limited” strike turned into a much larger military commitment. The problem is that at least some of the likely presidential candidates on the Republican side are ideologically committed to exercising U.S. “leadership” through the frequent use of force overseas. For instance, this summary of how members of Congress may vote lists Marco Rubio as a “lean no” vote, but that is only because he believes a “limited” strike on Syria is insufficiently aggressive and destructive. Like McCain and Graham, Rubio will make a lot of noise about how unhappy he is with the overall Syria policy, but will almost certainly end up voting for the resolution. My guess is that any would-be Republican presidential candidate not named Rand Paul will end up doing the same thing.

Because so many Syria hawks in conservative media have sought to connect intervention in Syria with inflicting harm on Iran, and because there have been so many terrible “credibility” arguments linking an attack on Syria with Iran’s nuclear program, there are more obstacles for Republican politicians within their own party than one might think. As long as many hawkish pundits want to treat the Syria vote as a litmus test of support for U.S. “leadership” in the world, most Republicans with national ambitions are probably going to line up behind the administration and their party’s leadership in Congress.

There is still a strong current of reflexive hawkishness that demands support for military action no matter how foolish, useless, or dangerous it may be. Dan McCarthy noticed the epitome of such mindless support for presidential power and war in James Ceaser’s recent advice to Congressional Republicans. Ceaser wrote:

Republicans should support some version of the authorization of force resolution. They should do so even if they think that the President’s policy will prove ineffective, do no good, waste money, or entail unforeseen risks [bold mine-DL]; they should do so even if they think he has gotten the nation into this situation by blunders, fecklessness, arrogance, or naiveté; and they should so even if, and especially, if they have no confidence in his judgment.

Ceaser proceeds to recite all the predictable bad clams about the need to protect U.S. “credibility” and preserve future presidents’ ability to start wars without approval, but the most absurd part is when he tells Republicans in Congress that they must vote for the resolution even if they don’t have to agree with any of the administration’s justifications for military action. What matters is making sure that Republican presidents in the future can wage war at will:

They can sign on to the president’s discretion to act without signing on to his actions.

While members of Congress might try to tell themselves that they can vote for an AUMF resolution without endorsing the specific actions that it authorizes, it’s simply not true. Quite a few Democrats that voted for the Iraq war resolution in 2002 later tried to deny any responsibility for the debacle that ensued in just this way, but this was not credible. It is undeniable that voting for a war resolution means that you have enabled and approved the specific actions that the administration takes afterwards. Republicans and Democrats in Congress should understand that when they cast their votes later this month.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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