Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is among a group of Republican lawmakers who appear skeptical that an American military mission in Syria is in Washington's interests. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s march to war in Syria is exposing anew fissures in the Republican Party, with its members splitting over whether the United States should intervene militarily.
President Barack Obama could order Tomahawk missile strikes on Syrian targets at any moment, but GOP members’ reactions to the simmering conflict have put the party’s isolationists and interventionists on opposite sides.
The factions of the party agree with the White House’s determination that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in a deadly Aug. 21 attack. But that’s where members head to different sides of the party’s famed “big tent.”
In one corner are Republican lawmakers who appear skeptical that an American military mission in Syria is in Washington’s interests. This group also is warning that US action could cause further instability in the always-chaotic Middle East.
“The United States has deep national security interests in Syria and the region,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif.
But Royce also warned that “any US military action could bring serious consequences or further escalation.”
Libertarian GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has become a thorn in the side of both Obama and his party’s hawks, on Monday said the administration “is right that Assad using chemical weapons is an outrage, and it is wrong.”
But Cruz sees something “missing” in the White House’s publicly stated reasons for the expected strikes.
“Unfortunately missing from … the president’s approach so far has been a focus on what the touchstone should be, which is the vital US national security interest of this country,” Cruz said. “The United States armed forces is not, doesn’t exist to be a policeman for the world.
Cruz, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, also is warning that “simply lobbing some cruise missiles in to disagree with Assad’s murderous actions” would not equal “protecting our national security.”
Another libertarian-leaning GOP lawmaker, Michigan’s Justin Amash, opposes a Syrian military intervention on legal grounds.
Amash posted this on his Twitter page Monday: “War Powers Resolution is consistent w/Constitution: Pres can take unilateral action only pursuant to nat’l emergency.”
He has since tweeted quotes from Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden from 2007, when they argued a president can authorize a military strike without congressional approval only if an imminent threat to the US exists. Amash says no such threat is evident with Assad’s forces in Syria.
“Obama ‘07: ‘Pres does not have power ... to unilaterally authorize military attack ... that does not involve stopping actual or imminent threat,’” Amash tweeted this week, followed later by: “Biden ‘07: ‘Founding Fathers vested in Congress, not Pres, power to initiate war, except to repel imminent attack on U.S. or its citizens.’”
In another corner of the GOP tent, members are pounding the drums of war.
John McCain, R-Ariz., a longtime Senate Armed Services Committee leader, took to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program Wednesday to deliver a full-throated call for strikes that go beyond what the Obama administration reportedly is mulling.
Experts predict the coming missile and air strikes likely will target Assad’s command and control capabilities, chemical-weapons delivery units and platforms, air-defense systems, and other military targets.
The idea is to punish Assad and send a message. But the goal will not be to remove him from office, according to the White House.
“I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday. “They are about responding to a clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.”
McCain said Wednesday morning that the Obama administration should be preparing war plans for strikes that would drive Assad from office.
The leader of the Senate’s “Three Amigos” pointed to Obama’s repeated declarations that Assad cannot remain in power after leading a civil war that has killed tens of thousands of Syrians and driven others to refugee camps in neighboring countries.
Also in the McCain group are lawmakers such as Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who support strikes but want them limited to Tomahawk missile launches.
“I think you’re [going to] see a surgical, proportional strike against the Assad regime for what they have done,” Corker said this week. “And I support that. … With the use of chemical warfare, I think we have to act. And I think we’ll do so, again, in a very surgical, proportional way.””
This is where Corker breaks with McCain.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member, who has been briefed by the White House, wants a limited response that avoids another protracted ground operation in a Middle Eastern nation where violence from al-Qaida and sectarian conflict could break out — thereby dramatically increasing the amount of blood and treasure America would have to expend.
“I do not want us, though, to move into a situation where we’re moving beyond supporting the moderate, vetted opposition on the ground,” Corker said. “I do think Syrians need to be the ones to deal with this issue.”
Resigned to War
Finally, a third group appears almost resigned to war’s inevitability.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., on Monday endorsed a US military intervention.
But he did not do so without questioning Obama’s logic. Essentially, McKeon is asking: Why did Obama issue his now-infamous “red line” warning to Assad over the use of chemical arms if he did not already know how he would enforce it?
Once that kind of line was set, this group said this week, Obama might have made war inevitable.
“Now that American credibility is on the line,” McKeon said, “the president cannot fail to act decisively.”
Sounding a similar tone this week is former House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King, R-N.Y.
“Once that red line has been crossed and once chemical weapons have been used,” King said, “I believe the president has to take action.”