By all accounts, President Obama’s efforts to lobby Congress in support of military intervention in Syria are going poorly. Perhaps most remarkable has been Obama’s apparent failure to win over Republican defense hawks — lawmakers who might typically be considered low-hanging fruit for a president who hopes to corral support for military action against a brutal, terrorist-supporting dictator.
For example, Representative Buck McKeon (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Senator Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have bothindicated they would oppose the president’s request for military authorization as it currently stands. Even former United Nations ambassador John Bolton is a no. They are hardly alone, and, as one GOP aide notes, opposition from such prominent hawks provides “a lot of cover to other Republicans to vote against [authorization].”
Some have suggested that the relatively widespread GOP opposition to military involvement in Syria stems, at least in part, from the rise of the party’s non-interventionist (or “isolationist”) wing, as represented by the likes of Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) and Representative Justin Amash (R., Mich.). But Republican hawks are just as skeptical of Obama’s plans, such as they are.
“Traditional defense hawks also have real concerns, and it’s because they’re anti-interventionist, it’s not because they are isolationist,” says a senior GOP national-security aide. “It’s because they recognize that Reagan’s doctrine of ‘peace through strength’ presumed that there would be strength — we have to be strong. Obama’s approach here has been force through weakness.”
A chief concern among GOP defense hawks is rolling back the military budget cuts enacted under sequestration, which are set to total about $600 billion over the next decade, on top of the nearly $500 billion in cuts implemented under the Budget Control Act of 2011. At the very least, lawmakers such as McKeon and Inhofe want the White House to engage them on the issue of eliminating, or perhaps delaying, those cuts. “We think it’s a very reasonable point to make before a commander-in-chief uses force,” an aide says. “The president continues to ask the military to take on new missions, and at the same time, he continues to cut the military’s budget.”
The administration has gone to great lengths to emphasize the limited scope of their intended action in Syria — “unbelievably small,” in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry; another administration official compared it to forcing Syrian president Bashar Assad to eat Cheerios with a fork instead of a spoon. But seasoned defense hawks are well aware that in these situations, “the enemy gets a vote.” Assad has already made clear that the United States and its allies should expect retaliation for striking Syria, and by involving itself in the first place, the U.S. may risk getting bogged down in a chaotic, and costly, mess.
Senior administration officials have warned that the enacted defense cuts could severely hamper military readiness and national security. But the White House has yet to directly engage lawmakers on this front, aides say, and this has exacerbated the already substantial trust deficit between Obama and GOP defense hawks. The issue is bound to be a point of contention in upcoming budget negotiations, and it has the potential to divide Republicans, because congressional Democrats plan to use the promise of restoring defense spending as leverage to win tax hikes and increases in non-defense spending. Such a dynamic has exposed tensions within the GOP in the past, with some defense hawks favoring tax hikes over further cuts to the military.
Few Republicans think sequestration is smart policy; nearly all agree that the military cuts should be replaced with alternative cuts, and Republicans have voted several times in the House to do just that. But the enactment of sequestration earlier this year was also hailed as an important long-term victory for fiscal conservatives, and House majority leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) told members last week that preserving sequester spending levels remained a top priority.
Any efforts to roll back sequestration are likely to be met with some resistance. “Whatever you think about the proposal to take action in Syria, it must not be used as a cudgel to undo the first effective budget control measure in a generation, albeit an imperfect one,” Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, wrote in an op-ed published last week. Several Republicans aides have expressed discomfort at the idea of bringing sequestration into the debate over Syria. “It just comes across as shameless politics,” one said.
Most Republicans, though, downplay the prospects of internal fighting in the weeks and months ahead, noting that such conversations on budget issues are just beginning. Meanwhile, on the matter at hand — Syria — there seems to be almost unanimous consent regarding the president’s handling of the conflict, including his efforts to win support in Congress. In the words of a senior GOP aide: “He has been remarkably successful and creative at bungling this thing.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.