Syria: Inside the D.C. War

Will Congress follow the President into an attack that no one wants?

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Jim Watson

Barack Obama makes his case for intervention in Syria during a White House meeting with congressional leaders on Sept. 3.

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These arguments won't settle the identity crises that both parties have been suffering from for a decade or more. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Republicans have typically preached a doctrine of muscular intervention to spread democracy, while dovish Democrats have warned against the perils of endless entanglements. But those lines have blurred. Now Democrats are warming to the merits of humanitarian intervention, while the GOP's isolationist wing is growing, fed by economic turmoil, the rise of the Tea Party and a decade of grinding war. "This hasn't seemed to break down on traditional lines on either side of the aisle," says a House Democratic leadership aide.

Even if Pelosi can rally Democrats, the Republicans are likely to splinter deeply. "Conservative opposition to an intervention in Syria is symptomatic of something larger: political parties advancing a neoisolationist outlook when their party is out of the White House," says Dan Senor, a neoconservative adviser to George W. Bush. But even if that outlook is merely a fad, the vote accelerates a clash that will reverberate through upcoming elections. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell's silence on Syria--even in private high-level meetings--speaks volumes: however he weighs in, McConnell knows he will face blowback from Kentucky Tea Partyers in next year's re-election bid. And the vote could pit some of the Republican Party's hottest political stars, including Senators Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, against one another ahead of the 2016 presidential primary.

When the vote is taken, the GOP may divide into moderates who back the President, Obama haters who oppose him by reflex, anti-interventionists and a small group of Republicans who think Obama isn't intervening enough. Senate candidate Liz Cheney, the daughter of Iraq-war architect Dick Cheney, has said on the campaign trail in Wyoming that she opposes a strike to punish the Assad government's use of weapons of mass destruction. Her reason: the President has failed to develop a plan for intervention with defined goals.

All Bets Are Off

other than Obama himself, no politician got more mileage out of opposing the Iraq war than Pelosi. She won the Speaker's gavel after Democrats swept the House in the midterm elections of 2006 and the following year became an early--if quiet--backer of the antiwar candidate with the funny name. She had long made the rush to war in Iraq her signature issue, both as party leader and member of the House Intelligence Committee. "I say flat out that unilateral use of force without first exhausting every diplomatic remedy and other remedies and making a case to the American people will be harmful to our war on terrorism," she said in 2002, before voting against authorizing the use of force.

So it is ironic that some of those same arguments have now been borrowed by Democratic opponents, who believe that it is wrong for the U.S. to act without the United Nations and that involvement in a Syrian civil war will distract from more core U.S. interests. Pelosi rejects the comparison. "It does not represent any change in me," she says of her decision. "With the Iraq war there was no there there. In Syria, there is a there there. And that's what makes the difference."

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