by Jim Lobe
It’s not clear whether Bill Kristol went to the dentist Thursday and had a prolonged reaction to the Sodium Pentothal he was administered or whether he’s become desperate over the prospect that neoconservatives are losing their hold over the GOP (even his Keep America Safe co-founder, Liz Cheney opposes attacking Syria), but his lead editorial in this week’s Weekly Standard makes public the kind of argument one suspects he usually reserves for the back rooms and private dinner parties with impressionable “princes” of the Republican Party for whom he can serve as their private Machiavelli. The cynicism shown here is truly remarkable. After summarily dispensing with the “statesmanship” argument as to why Republicans should vote yes on President Obama’s AUMF — and statesmanship has nothing to do with the plight of the Syrian people or the use of chemical weapons; it’s all about U.S. power and credibility — he moves on to the “crass political reasons” why they should do so. Those reasons deserve to be quoted at length:
A Yes vote is in fact the easy vote. It’s actually close to risk-free. After all, it’s President Obama who is seeking the authorization to use force and who will order and preside over the use of force. It’s fundamentally his policy. Lots of Democrats voted in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war. When that war ran into trouble, it was President Bush and Republicans who paid the price. [Editor’s note: don’t tell that to Hillary Clinton.] If the Syria effort goes badly, the public will blame President Obama, who dithered for two years, and who seems inclined to a halfhearted execution of any military campaign. If it goes well, Republicans can take credit for pushing him to act decisively, and for casting a tough vote supporting him when he asked for authorization to act.
A No vote is the risky vote. In fact, the risk is all on the side of voting No. The only thing that can get Obama off the hook now is for Republicans to deny him authorization for the use of force against the Assad regime. Then the GOP can be blamed for whatever goes wrong in Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, over the next months and years. And plenty will go wrong. It’s a Yes vote that gets Republicans in Congress off the hook.
A Yes vote seems to be statesmanlike. …In fact, many voters do like to think they’re voting for someone who has at least a touch of statesmanship, and so casting what appears superficially to be a politically perilous vote could well help the stature of Republicans with many of their constituents back home.
It’s true that a Yes vote will be temporarily unpopular with the base. To support Obama now may seem to invite primary opposition from challengers who would be more in tune with popular sentiment to stay out of the Syrian civil war. For a few weeks after the vote, Republicans will hear such rumblings. But at the end of the day, Republican primary voters are a pretty hawkish bunch. It’s hard to believe they’re going to end up removing otherwise conservative representatives or senators in favor of challengers who run on a platform whose key plank is that Republicans should have voted to let an Iran-supported, terror-backing dictator with American blood on his hands off the hook after he’s used chemical weapons. What’s more, primary elections are more than half a year away. Republican senators and congressmen will have plenty of time to reestablish their anti-Obama credentials by fighting Obama on Obama-care, immigration, the debt ceiling, and a host of other issues.
A Yes vote can also be explained as a vote to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Syria is an Iranian proxy. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons is a proxy for Iran’s ability to move ahead unimpeded in its acquisition of nuclear weapons. To bring this point home, soon after voting to authorize the use of force against the Assad regime, Republicans might consider moving an authorization for the use of force against the Iranian nuclear weapons program. They can explain that Obama’s dithering in the case of Syria shows the utility of unequivocally giving him the authority to act early with respect to Iran. An Iran debate would pretty much unite Republicans and conservatives and would help mitigate political problems arising from a Yes vote on Syria. The issue of Iran will most likely come to a head before Election Day 2014, probably even before primary elections earlier next year. An Iran resolution means the Syria vote won’t be the most important vote Republicans cast in this session of Congress—it won’t even be the most important foreign policy vote.
Of course, these arguments are also being made with Republicans by AIPAC and other institutions of the Israel lobby, but not nearly so publicly. Which, in my view, makes this such a remarkable document.
This week’s Weekly Standard appears devoted almost entirely to the Syria vote, with featured contributions by Fred Barnes, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Gary Schmitt, Fred Kagan, and Stephen “Case Closed” (a reference to his book purportedly proving Saddam’s ties to al-Qaeda) Hayes (who just came out with a paywalled op-ed actually opposing Obama’s AUMF unless it’s amended to authorize a much bigger commitment). Schmitt directs his comments at the 2016 Republican presidential aspirants — the three senators currently considered most likely to run (Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz) have voted against or indicated opposition to the AUMF — in ways similar to Kristol’s:
No doubt, there are conservatives who, like the president, want simply to pivot away from the Middle East altogether and believe that’s what the public wants as well. But what the public wants today and what it sees as important down the road will almost certainly not be the same. In 1999, John McCain went against the majority of his congressional GOP colleagues, supported a military intervention in Kosovo, and stole a march on his nomination opponents in appearing more presidential. He was joined by then-governor George W. Bush in support of the intervention, and soon enough the polls showed a majority of Americans in agreement.
On the other side of the coin, another senator with presidential aspirations, the relatively hawkish Democrat Sam Nunn, voted in 1991 against the congressional authorization for the first Gulf war and now admits it was the greatest mistake of his career.
In short, conservatives, especially those thinking that they could be sitting in the Oval Office one day, ought to think long and hard before they reject a sensible, if not perfect, authorization for the use of force.
So, it’s clear that Kristol and the Weekly Standard see the upcoming vote as a critical test of their enduring influence over the Republican Party.