Getting to Yes

The Republican arguments against Obama’s Syria resolution and how he might overcome them.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) listens as Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks about efforts to curb sexual assault in the military during a news conference at Capitol Hill in Washington July 16, 2013.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks during a news conference in Washington on July 16, 2013.

Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Over the past few fruitless months, a group of Syrian-Americans has been lobbying the White House and Congress to do something about the nightmare in their homeland. Their argument, according to the people making and getting the calls, is that opposing “intervention” means letting a war rage on. Supporting intervention doesn’t mean launching another Iraq; it means stopping another Rwanda. You all saw Hotel Rwanda, didn’t you, congressmen? Didn’t you?

The campaign is calibrated to work around the familiar “anti-war movement,” the people who opposed the Iraq War. In London, certainly, the push to strike Syria was stopped by people who’d been anti-war 10 years ago and those in the now Tony Blair–free Labour Party who’d wished they’d been anti-war 10 years ago. In Washington, as the lobbyists are finding out, the votes on Syria are impossible to predict.

Here are some of the arguments you should expect to hear from Republicans in the coming week, moving from dovish to hawkish.

Don’t call us isolationists, but we want to stay isolated, thanks. The Republicans aligned with Ron Paul’s movement, starting with his son-turned-senator, have done the patriarch proud. Rand Paul keeps going on TV and radio and repeating that the United States has “no interests” in Syria’s civil war. Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash has hitched his wagon to “a lot from members of our Armed Forces” who he says are telling him to vote no on any intervention. Kentucky Rep. Tom Massie and North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones are saying the same thing.

The Paulians know how to get attention—neo-isolationism is still fascinating to the media, and Amash is hosting 11 public meetings this week to prove the just-stay-out consensus. They’re not going to be moved, and they know that their position has popular support among voters who oppose intervention by a large majority.

We support the troops but oppose the war. Amash’s argument about the reluctant-but-heroic troops is pretty easy to recycle. New York Rep. Chris Gibson, who holds one of the last swing seats, explained his reluctance by reminding reporters that he was “a 29-year veteran of the United States military with multiple combat tours.” Given that, said Gibson, “it is my judgment that military intervention would make it worse and make us responsible for that conflict.” Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, in an era of omnipresent social media, it’s not hard to find active or retired members of the military willing to criticize a Syria strike.

We won’t bail out Obama. Just a month or so ago, Republicans were ruling out a vote for an immigration bill because they didn’t trust Obama to enforce the law. That’s a useful, reusable theory: Obama’s going to blow this thing anyway, so why help him? “The fruit of President Obama’s failed foreign policy has contributed to the chaos and instability in Libya and Egypt,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann. “President Obama has not demonstrated a vital American national security interest in the conflict in Syria or a clear strategy outlining what the use of force would accomplish.”

Time for a blue-ribbon commission. To be fair, only one member of Congress so far wants to assemble a group of wise avengers who might assess and guide the Syria strategy. That’s Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf, who’s responsible for the 2006 creation of the James Baker–led Iraq Study Group. Wolf’s now calling for … a Syria group that could include “former Secretary of State Jim Baker, who has extensive experience in the Middle East and served as co-chair of the Iraq Study Group,” and may include “other names that come to mind not to mention unconventional, but potentially strategic actors, like the Vatican.”

Go ahead, as long as you don’t use the ground troops no one is actually talking about using. The initial White House version of the force resolution was incredibly broad. Anonymous Senate aides criticized it for not specifying that the intervention would consist only of missile strikes, leaving the door open for a ground invasion. Members of Congress noticed. “I don’t see a way forward,” said Florida Republican Rep. Tom Rooney, “but U.S. boots on the ground is out of the question in my opinion.”

Faster, please, and with more missiles. The easiest gets for the White House are the Republicans who’re ready for action and irritated that it didn’t come sooner. Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton, who’s got even odds of becoming the state’s next senator, told reporters in his state that a strike on Syria might be widened to take out airfields.

Some of these arguments come from Republicans who can’t possibly vote for Obama’s resolution, no matter what evidence they see from the administration. The rest leave substantial room to “evolve.” And on the left, some of the people who’d opposed Bush-era foreign adventures are already cracking. Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, one of just two Muslims in Congress, was quick to endorse strikes as the humanitarian option. “I just don’t think the world can stand by and say, ‘That’s OK, that’s not our business, we don’t have to worry about it,’ ” he said, referring to the reports of chemical weapons attacks launched by the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Give the Republicans enough room to condemn Obama, give the Democrats enough assurances that this is a humanitarian mission—oh, be sure to compare Assad to Hitler and failure to bomb to “appeasement,” just so the message about Israel isn’t missed—and the resolution begins to look passable.