05 September 2013

A Republican's case against attacking Syria: too much and not enough

Like a lot of sensible people, Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican representing Utah, opposes the punitive use of military force by the U.S. against Syria. On this issue, I'd advise against assuming that any Republican who opposes intervention is a hypocrite on the basis of the party's support for the war plans of its own president a decade ago. Many of today's elected Republicans had nothing to do with Iraq; the sincere anti-intervention of someone like Sen. Paul of Kentucky is self-evident. Nevertheless, I find Sen. Lee's opposition odd, if only because he seems to say more than he needs to.

Lee lines up with other opponents of intervention when he states, "We cannot ask our men and women in uniform to engage in a military conflict that does not present a national security threat to the United States." He acknowledges that the proliferation of chemical weapons is a potential national-security threat, but when he goes on to say, "We must work to ensure that chemical weapons in Syria do not get into the hands of groups that will use them against American or western targets," it's not hard to see this as a warning against the still-mysterious Syrian opposition. In terms of the current debate, this is an adequate statement of Lee's position, but it's the last paragraph of four that Lee released on the subject. Here's the first:

The administration has indicated its goal is to use limited military action to significantly degrade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons against his own people and to deter future attacks.  After hearing from the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in a top-secret briefing, I do not believe that the range of options the president is considering will accomplish this military objective, and therefore I cannot now support intervention into the Syrian civil war.

This would make sense if not for that final paragraph in which Lee throws the military objective into question. What's the point of saying the means are inadequate to the end, only to tell us later that you don't believe in the end? Who cares whether intervention in "a military conflict that does not present a national security threat" will work or not, if the point is to keep it from happening?

What's happening here, for which  I won't reproach Lee too much, is a Republican expressing discomfort with his own opposition to the U.S. asserting its usually-assumed world leadership. Simply to say that intervention is unnecessary, not to mention wrong, might have made Lee look to himself like the sort of peacenik Republicans tend to despise. As well, Republicans may have difficulty wrapping their minds around the idea of President Obama as a warmonger, since the stereotype of a Democrat, for Republicans, is a spineless wimp or coward. While the rest of the world sees little difference between the major American parties on foreign policy, remembering that LBJ bombed North Vietnam and Clinton bombed Serbia, the partisans need to convince themselves that the differences are real and deep. In practice, this means that someone like Lee cannot criticize a Democrat's warmongering without also making the more familiar observation that the Democrat is weak. That seems to be the point of Lee's first paragraph. We may have a warmongering Democratic President, but Lee also wants to remind his base that their assumptions about Democratic military incompetence remain true. If his closing sentiments are sincere, however, it would make no difference had the President, Secretary Hagel and the others had come up with a better plan. But it doesn't hurt a Republican to say that Democrats (not counting Hagel) are bad planners. The next time Lee wants to campaign as a hawk, he'll most likely quote from the first paragraph of his statement instead of the fourth. If that time never comes, I'll be surprised. 

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