WASHINGTON — The rapidly approaching conflict in Syria has begun to draw a deep rift between two sides of a Republican party that have long been drifting apart over foreign policy, pitting the hawkish holdovers of Bush-era neoconservatism against an ascendant libertarian wing that opposes humanitarian intervention.
As the Obama administration beats the war drum — calling the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens a “moral obscenity,” and insisting intervention is the only acceptable response — Republicans are scattered all over the philosophical spectrum, without a clear set of talking points, let alone a unified worldview.
“There are groups of Republicans that are comfortable with the executive branch unilaterally using our armed forces anywhere in the world. I’m not comfortable with that, America is not comfortable with that,” said Florida Rep. Trey Radel, a tea party Republican who said he was open to an attack on Syria but only if Congress votes to approve it. “I guarantee you some of us younger conservatives would be just as apprehensive as we are today if this was George W. Bush. This goes beyond partisanship… We cannot be the police of the world and, because we have big bombs and big guns, solve the deep and profoundly complex problems of [Syria].”
Radel belongs to a growing tribe of libertarian-leaning Republicans that represent one pole of the intra-party debate: highly skeptical of military intervention unless United States national security is directly at risk. Led by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and jump-started in part by his anti-drone filibuster in March, the push toward a more dovish, non-interventionist foreign policy has made serious strides within the GOP this year, attracting high-profile figures like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who told Fox News Monday that the U.S. “doesn’t exist to be a policeman for the world.”
On the other end of the spectrum, old-guard neoconservative hawks like Arizona Sen. John McCain, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, and New York Rep. Peter King are strongly supporting an intervention — and in some cases, urging the president to go much further than his administration has so far indicated it’s willing to.
“I think the strategic plan should be to cause punishment to cause enough damage and then to give us a major role in terms of negotiations between the parties there. That would give us influence on the rebel side and we could minimize the impact of the al-Qaeda supporters,” King, the former chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, told BuzzFeed.
“I don’t think the president has handled it that well over the last few years, but at the same time we are where we are and as Americans we should support him. We should not be talking about or insisting on congressional approval,” King added. “If he wants to get approval from Congress, he can, but he does not have to.”
McCain and Graham issued a joint statement on Sunday, similarly calling for action.
“Now is the time for decisive actions. The United States must rally our friends and allies to take limited military actions in Syria that can change the balance of power on the ground and create conditions for a negotiated end to the conflict and an end to Assad’s rule,” they wrote.
The political debate over how and when to use military force has been a constant inside the GOP since George W. Bush’s approval ratings were pulled below 30% by a war-weary populace tired of watching the body counts in Iraq and Afghanistan rise. But the likely Syria intervention comes at pivotal moment for a weakened party in which competing factions are actively fighting to show lead the way forward — and in which the power balance is still very much in flux.
What’s more, the timing of the military action has made it so that many congressional Republicans are still up for grabs in the ideological battle over Syria. With Congress on recess, a portion of GOP members have used their distance from the D.C. press corps and party leadership to avoid taking a clear position on Syria altogether, opting instead to hang back and assess the party landscape before pledging allegiance to one side or the other.
Many of those members have echoed House Speaker John Boehner’s hedging statement Monday, in which he declined to say where he stood on the subject of the intervention, but urged the president to consult Congress before bombs start falling. Others have explicitly called for a vote on any military intervention Obama might pursue. Virginia Republican Scott Rigell spearheaded a letter Tuesday, so far signed by 33 Republicans and six Democrats, that asked the president to call Congress back into session to vote on an authorization before the U.S. takes action.
Meanwhile, prominent conservative opinion makers are demonstrating a similar lack of cohesion on the Syria issue.
Sean Hannity spent the opening hour of his radio show Tuesday twisting himself into various rhetorical gymnastics in order to simultaneously criticize Obama for being too weak, and for pursuing a military strike. He tentatively sided with the libertarians, but said there were still “more questions” to ask.
“I hate to say it, but it might just be time for the United States to get the hell out of the way and let two groups of bad people just kill each other, and provide as much humanitarian assistance as possible,” Hannity said of the conflict in Syria.
Glenn Beck has devoted the week to questioning whether the U.S. really has the evidence it claims to have that Assad used chemical weapons, and warned that a military strike on Syria could prompt “World War III” (helpfully mapped out on a giant chalkboard map of the globe.)
And Rush Limbaugh, the most powerful conservative pundit in the country, openly confessed that he hadn’t made up his mind on the issue. After tearing in to the president for failing to act when Syria first crossed “the red line,” and deriding Democrats’ foreign policy “hypocrisy,” he arrived at the question of whether the U.S. should strike Syria.
“I mean, folks, that is a toughie,” he said.
CORRECTION: Peter King previously served as the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. An earlier version of this story misstated his former chairmanship (8/28/13)