Key Republicans line up behind action in Syria — but will the latter-day Robert Taft Republicans do so?

John Boehner and Eric Cantor have both joined Nancy Pelosi in lining up behind the president’s proposal to take limited military action in Syria.

There are reports that John McCain and Lindsey Graham are doing so as well, despite all the reservations they expressed the last couple of days.

That’s important, even impressive, given the problems Congress has had lining up behind anything in recent years.

But it doesn’t answer the big questions. A big reason why Congress has been so much more feckless than usual lately is that the leadership lining up behind a plan is not the same as Congress doing so.

One of the causes of the president’s highly disturbing indecision on this issue is attributable to the fact that his party has been drifting toward what has been its comfort zone since 1975 — reflexive opposition to any sort of military action.

But the real indecision is expected on the Republican side, where pre-1941 isolationism has been gaining a strong foothold in recent years.

In that vein, the WSJ had an interesting column today headlined, “The Robert Taft Republicans Return.” As Bret Stephens wrote,

Such faux-constitutional assertions—based on the notion that only direct attacks to the homeland constitute an actionable threat to national security—would have astonished Ronald Reagan, who invaded Grenada in 1983 without consulting a single member of Congress. It would have amazed George H.W. Bush, who gave Congress five hours notice before invading Panama. And it would have flabbergasted the Republican caucus of, say, 2002, which understood it was better to take care of threats over there rather than wait for them to arrive right here.

Then again, the views of Messrs. Paul, Lee and Amash would have sat well with Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio (1889-1953), son of a president, a man of unimpeachable integrity, high principles, probing intelligence—and unfailing bad judgment.

A history lesson: In April 1939, the man known as Mr. Republican charged that “every member of the government . . . is ballyhooing the foreign situation, trying to stir up prejudice against this country or that, and at all costs take the minds of the people off their trouble at home.” By “this country or that,” Taft meant Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The invasion of Poland was four months away.

Another history lesson: After World War II, Republicans under the leadership of Sen. Arthur Vandenberg joined Democrats to support the Truman Doctrine, the creation of NATO, and the Marshall Plan. But not Robert Taft. He opposed NATO as a threat to U.S. sovereignty, a provocation to Russia, and an undue burden on the federal fisc.

“Can we afford this new project of foreign assistance?” he asked in 1949. “I am as much against Communist aggression as anyone. . . but we can’t let them scare us into bankruptcy and the surrender of all liberty, or let them determine our foreign policies.” Substitute “Islamist” for “Communist” in that sentence, and you have a Rand Paul speech…

48 thoughts on “Key Republicans line up behind action in Syria — but will the latter-day Robert Taft Republicans do so?

    1. Doug Ross

      And many Democrats will support it because Mr. Obama proposed it. Nothing new. Partisan wars are partisan wars.

      Hypocrisy is not limited to either party.

    2. Bart

      You are absolutely right Burl. And many Democrats will vote for it simply because Obama proposed it even though they don’t support any action against Syria. One has already come out and admitted that it was the only reason she would vote for action against Syria.

      And this little blurb from Chris “Leg Tingle” Matthews: “I think the Democrats are going to be forced to sacrifice men and women who really, really don’t want to vote for this. They’re going to have to vote for it to save the president’s hide. That’s a bad position to put your party in.”

      Now that is simply pathetic as hell when the elected representatives in Washington have devolved into a mindset where the first order of priority when making a key decision about entering into a potential war and the first consideration is “saving the president’s hide” and they should admit the truth for the main underlying reason, “because he is the first black president”.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, “The NO vote appears to be bi-partisan,” as I would expect it to be.

      Which sort of undermines your assertion above about “partisan wars.”

      As for the comments on websites you’re seeing being 10-1 against action, well… thank goodness that in this Republic, we don’t make decisions that way. In this case, it’s bad enough that we’re involving Congress. The president should have decided this already.

      1. Doug Ross

        They can do what they want as long as they understand the consequences of going against the will of the people. Obama is immune now… he must be thanking his lucky stars that the chemical attack didn’t occur a year ago. But there will be pushback at the voting booth for those congressmen who go against the wishes of their constituents. I doubt anyone will gain votes from voting yes.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Oh, and before some of y’all react to that with more nonsense about “respecting the Constitution” by consulting Congress…

        The president has NO constitutional or statutory obligation to consult with Congress before taking this action. Not even under the War Powers Act of 1973, which sought to limit the president’s authority as commander in chief.

        Among my more reflexively antiwar friends, it’s fashionable to bemoan how we’ve moved away from “constitutionality” since 1941. But this situation no more calls for a declaration of war than did Thomas Jefferson’s action against the Barbary Pirates.

  1. Bryan Caskey

    The waters are getting all muddied here. It’s not just for or against “Military Action” but what kind of Military action and what is the intended purpose and what will be the consequences of either action, inaction, or ineffectual action. To reduce this to “We hit them or we don’t.” is oversimplifying it by a factor of 1000.

    And for the record. I am NOT in favor of some half-A** cruise missile attack that only makes us look weak. If we go in, we should go in hard, and we need to be prepared for a long, fight with American casualties. No one is prepared to even discuss that idea. The whole idea of a “time-limited, scope-limited” strike is silly. Half-measures aren’t going to accomplish anything.

    As a wise, green little man once said: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

    However, I love this nifty new word we have now: Degrade. We’re just gonna degrade Assad’s military ability. Sounds so sterile and peaceful, doesn’t it? Quick and easy. Degrade.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    On a previous thread, I mentioned my concern about what happened the other day in the UK.

    In terms of long-term trends, that is highly disturbing — the first such rebuke of a prime minister since 1782, when Parliament voted to quit trying to hang onto us as colonies.

    Here’s another: The way libertarianism has taken such a hold in the Republican Party that it can no longer be relied upon to stand firm on national security issues.

    Add that to the other serious, long-term problem — the post-Vietnam shift of the Democratic Party away from any sort of military action under almost any circumstances — and you have a serious situation developing not only for the course of this country, but for collective security (of which the U.S. has been the chief guarantor since 1945, and especially since 1991) around the world.

    If no one is willing to stand up for civilizing international standards (such as the stricture against chemical warfare that has stood since right after WWI), then the world slides backwards.

    Oh, and let me take a moment to thank France for its willingness to stand up for such standards. With all the bad craziness out of London and Washington in recent days, I haven’t gotten around to mentioning that…

  3. Doug Ross

    It’s not a “problem”. It’s a response. It’s an ongoing shift of public opinion against the military industrial complex. It’s the realization that we can’t be the world’s policeman without bankrupting our own economy in the process. It’s about recognizing that 50+ years of trying to fix the Middle East has resulted in the same wars fought again and again against dictators who we support then reject.

    John Kerry and his wife had a private dinner with Assad his his wife just four years ago! The same guy Kerry now claims is Hitler 2.0! Either he is incredibly stupid or he thinks the American public is.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’d call it an ongoing shift of public opinion against the United States being what the world badly needs it to be — what it has an obligation to be under the “with great power comes great responsibility” concept.

      There is no other power in the world positioning itself or showing the slightest willingness to replace us in that role — except China. Which would not be a good thing for the people of this planet.

      It is a big, BIG problem. About as big as they get, really.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        It is not the job of the US military to make bad people overseas behave when there are no US interests at stake. If you send soldiers out to kill and be killed, you better have a good reason. Spanking a misbehaving dictator is not a good reason.

        Also, I made the point about the word “degrade” because it’s a euphemism. It’s a euphemism for WAR. Even if POTUS says he wants to hurt that nation only “a little”, it’s still war. POTUS only wants a “little war” and he only wants it because he knows Syria won’t be able to bring war back to the US.

        1. MarkStewart

          I am pretty sure we are discussing what to do because chemical weapons were used. We, the free world, should not accept such actions.

          But yeah, war is war. You enter them to end them. And to forstall the next one.

          1. Bryan Caskey

            If only there was some sort of group of nations, a league of some sort, perhaps, that could allow the world to speak with one voice. If only there was a united group of nations….

          2. Mark Stewart

            Where the screwup occurred with that was to create a unanimous Security Council. That was dumb.

            Because of that, the UN has always been doomed to pointlessness. It is bush league. Can’t be otherwise.

    1. Bart

      Yeahbut. Gotta trademark that word, “yeahbut”. It is properly applied in this instance.

      “Yeahbut” in order to secure McCain’s support for action against Assad, Obama had to agree to supplying the rebels with arms. Now, we all know that al-Quida is heavily involved with the rebels and if we arm the rebels, we arm al-Quida and is that what we really want to do? Boehner made some good points in his response to Obama before caving in today. One was the question about the existing chemical weapons and what happens if they fall into the hands of the rebels who are heavily involved with al-Quida who is heavily involved in committing terrorist acts against America we have already experienced the willingness of al-Quida to fly planes into buildings, etc.

      In essence, McCain is encouraging a defacto arming of al-Quida who if successful will potentially have access to chemical weapons. So, if the rebels are successful, will McCain want to send cruise missiles and such after al-Quida if they use chemical weapons against us?

      Is this an example of, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”? Or at least for the moment?

  4. Bryan Caskey

    Also, the proposal from President Obama doesn’t satisfy the conditions of Just War theory. For those of you scoring at home, the conditions are:

    1. Just Cause;
    2. Just Authority; and,
    3. Just Result.

    Punishment is never a just cause. Defense of other is, but that’s not Obama’s proffered justification. He says he wants to “punish” chemical weapon usage. He also lacks Just Authority. He refused to go to the UN because in the words of an administration official, it would be pointless. Finally, the proposed war lacks a Just Result, since he says he wants to hurt others, but not to the point of causing their surrender.

    That’s just the traditional Just War theory. If you want to add the modern elements of:

    4. Proportionality; and,
    5. Last Resort.

    it gets even worse. Proportionality means that the benefits of war are proportional to the evils of war. “Saving face” is not proportional to killing people. And finally, there’s no argument that Obama’s “just enough not to be mocked” war could ever be a “last resort”.

    Anyone in Congress who votes for this moronic little war throws the Just War theory out the window.

    1. MarkStewart

      Maybe Congress shouldn’t be asked to approve this “moronic little war”. It just may be much larger and more important than that.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        The war? I’m pretty sure that President Obama has guaranteed that it will be a “small war”. The President does not support a total remodel of Syria, but he does want to give the place some color with accent bombings.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Reminds me of something a character — a heavy, a bodyguard to the bad guy — said in a John le Carre novel. When someone asked what some other bully boys had done to another character’s face — he had been brutally beaten — he answered with two words: “Styled it.”

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Actually, Bryan, it is rather important for the one nation with the power to act in these situations save face, so that we can be believed, and trusted, by both adversaries and friends.

      We don’t draw red lines, or say that something MUST be done, and then not do it. Everything unravels from that point, and the world is worse off.

      I think in this case, proportionality is satisfied IF what we do costs Assad enough that he’s afraid to use chemical weapons again. If we can go beyond that and DEGRADE (I know you don’t like that word, but it’s the word) his ability to kill his people by any means, we’ve done a good thing — we’ve achieved a Just result.

      My greatest concern at this point in terms of the tests for Just War is that our aims may not be achievable. THAT is the biggest concern. Had we acted a couple of years ago, my understanding is, a good and just outcome would have been more in reach.

      I don’t have access to enough intelligence to know whether a just result is STILL achievable.

      But… even if it isn’t — letting the rogues of the world know that there will be a cost (and it’s got to be big enough that they would not want to pay it as a cost of “doing business”) for crimes against humanity can have a just result in the long run. Failing to act, or acting with insufficient force and effectiveness, would have the opposite result.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        I agree with all of that, but it rides on the big “IF” you put in there. My biggest fear is that the US Military will carry out a symbolic strike and be totally ineffective in doing anything. That’s worse than doing nothing.

        I don’t believe that POTUS will order a military mission that will make Assad afraid to use chemical weapons again. Again, Assad either wins this civil war or dies. Those are his only two options. He’s not going to be Robert E. Lee and retire to become the president of a rural college after he’s lost the war.

        By announcing the mission limitations and intent ahead of time, with the proviso that this wan’t intended to be a regime change he did just that. Leaving Assad in power is acknowledging that he can get away with it.


        1. Phillip

          Bryan is exactly right. It’s difficult to conceive of how you find a way to “punish” Assad that would have any effectiveness in forestalling future use of chemical weapons, should he deem himself backed into a corner between regime survival or death. “Degrade” is a nice-sounding word, but it doesn’t take much in the way of chemical weapons to kill 1000 people so again I think “degrading” does not equal “preventing use”…I suppose if we can claim we destroyed a certain number of chemical weapons caches (who’s going to verify that, I wonder…) we can declare “mission accomplished, American ‘credibility’ intact” and call it a day…)

          Brad, just because America is the “one nation with the power to act in these situations” it does not follow that America is a nation with any unique insight about HOW to act, or what course of action would be correct in such a convoluted situation where we really don’t want either side in the Syrian civil war to win. “We don’t draw red lines, or say that something MUST be done, and then not do it.” Seriously? Obama makes an imprudent statement and that’s it? We’re trapped? Once again, I have to agree with Andrew Sullivan: “The United States would benefit by nothing more than accepting the fact that we do not have the power to control that region and shouldn’t die trying. Our credibility is threatened not when we stay out of other people’s civil wars, but when we make threats we cannot enforce… Repeat after me: American power is much more limited than our elites still want to believe.”

          Obama’s “red line” was a mistake. But doubling down on that mistake is not going to fix whatever damage that caused.

  5. Doug Ross

    Here’s what “key” Republican John McCain was doing during the senate hearings today;

    Playing poker on his iPhone. And this guy wanted to be President? He has turned into the biggest fraud. I wonder how he would have felt if he heard Senators were playing solitaire while he was in the Hanoi Hilton.
    He and Lindsey Graham are the biggest phony warmongers in the Senate. They play to the cameras and now McCain has been exposed.

    1. Silence

      Doug, would you feel better if McCain had been playing “Candy Crush Saga”?

      Sen. McCain’s forgotten more about Syria hearings and warfare than anyone else in the Senate will ever know. The public hearings are just for show, and not a single vote will be swayed or changed because of what is said there. Now, if he’d been playing iPhone during the classified hearings, that would be a different story.

      1. Doug Ross

        So why does he bother showing up? Obviously his mind is made up and he’s ready to blow stuff up. He’s an old pompous blowhard who probably was psychologically damaged by his trouncing by Obama in 2008.

        1. Silence

          Doug – if being shot down over Vietnam, getting brutally beaten and spending five and a half years as a prisoner or war didn’t psychologically damage John McCain, I doubt that an election loss to Obama would do it.

          He’s seen and endured worse things than most of us can even imagine. The public (unclassified) briefings and deliberations are strictly for show. The real stuff happens in the classified committee briefings and closed door congressional hearings. If he wants to play on his iPhone during the “for show” portion of the “debate” I have no issue with that. Nor should you. Honestly its’ not any different than Obama playing “Spades” during the Bin Laden raid.

          It should be noted that I disagree with the honorable Senator McCain’s view on intervention in Syria, but I strongly disagree with Doug’s assessment of McCain as “Phony” or “warmonger”. The man is a class act and a model for how to conduct one’s self under extreme duress.

          1. Bart

            “Honestly its’ not any different than Obama playing “Spades” during the Bin Laden raid.”

            Point to consider. If as you say the “real stuff” has already happened in the classified meetings and closed door briefings, then McCain’s playing poker is not a big deal since the outcome of the public meeting was preordained. However, the outcome of the bin Laden raid was not preordained, was it? The probability of success was high but in any operation, there is a factor for uncertainty entered into the equation. So, playing spades “away” from the operation room is very different from playing poker “in” the room while the discussions were going on.

          2. Brad Warthen

            Amen to that, Silence. Amen to that.

            And Doug, McCain made up his mind after meeting with the president yesterday morning.

            The debate was about others making up their minds, at least theoretically.

          3. Doug Ross

            Wow.. That’s all I can say. A Senator plays games on his phone while a major policy discussion is going on and he gets a complete pass because he was a prisoner of war 50 years ago.

          4. Doug Ross

            And if it “all for show” as Silence claims then I refuse to be called a cynic any more by anyone. To actually accept a decision to bomb another country as just a dog and pony show for the cameras is about as cynical as you can get.

          5. Brad Warthen Post author

            Actually, this is one of those rare debates that may actually BE a debate. Nowadays, most of them ARE for show — the two ends of the political spectrum preaching to their own choirs, with no hope or intention of changing minds on the other side.

            This is actually a debate in which minds are probably being made up, particularly among those members (probably a substantial majority) who spend little time thinking about international affairs or security issues.

            Even among those who have very clearly defined views, such as McCain and Graham (identified as the leaders of the “interventionist wing,” thought had to be given as to whether to support the president’s proposal. Both of them thought it was way too little, too late. But what appears to have won them over is the fact that under the circumstances, the worst thing — in terms of international reaction, the effect on Iran and on other dictators who might be in Assad’s position in the future — would be to do nothing.

            That, and the fact that the president was hinting that his response will NOT be as limited as he’d previously indicated.

            In any case, their minds had been made up when meeting with the president, or right afterward. Other senators, who have different criteria for making up their minds, are still doing so.

            Lining up support from McCain and Graham was an entirely different step for the president than winning over the rest of the Senate.

          6. Silence

            My assertion is that the true hearing (in this case) is the closed door hearing. The one where classified details are divulged and discussed. The Congress would have been given access to the best intel available, and have the opportunity to ask pointed questions to the executive branch leadership or staff including ambassadors, national security advisors, generals, secretaries of state, defense, intelligence etc. After that hearing, hopefully Congress would have the appropriate information to make the right decision. Game. Set. Match.

            The public version of the hearing is simply about giving them an opportunity to grandstand, and also to close the deal with the American voters. It’s about letting their constituents know that they are up there, concerned about national security and attentive to the needs of the downtrodden in the world. The vote may be public, but the real debate was not.

          7. Doug Ross

            That brings up an interesting point, Silence – what information in this situation should be classified? What should Joe Wilson and Jim Clyburn know that the people of South Carolina shouldn’t?

          8. Silence

            Doug – Any information that would cause “exceptionally grave” or “serious” damage to national security if it were publicly available.

            For instance we might not want our enemies to know exactly how we collect information. We might not want them to know the exact capabilities of our spy satelites, or the identities of moles or sources inside their country or defense apparatus.

  6. Phillip

    …and actually now it seems McCain is making noises about voting against the resolution after all, on the grounds that it does not go far enough for him. An intriguing theory I read elsewhere suggested that this is a bit of posturing intended to actually help the resolution pass, insofar as it may give reluctant Democrats cover to vote Yes if they feel that it puts enough limits on proposed action to have angered true hawks like McCain. Poker, indeed.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, remember that yesterday McCain and Graham gave conditional, or tentative, approval of the president’s plans.

      If they were totally in the bag, it would give the anti-interventionist people the thumbs-up to put crippling limitations on the president’s authority.

  7. Doug Ross

    Here’s the other thing I don’t get – if Assad is the problem, why don’t we take him out? If Assad ordered the chemical weapons attack, why don’t we go after him instead of some flunkies on the ground?

    Jeez, Kerry was able to sit across the table and eat dinner with him. Couldn’t he have made a trip to the bathroom to pick up the gun that Clemenza planted there and then take care of business?

    But I guess one bullet would cost fifty cents and there’s no way for Halliburton to profit off that strategy.

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