September 3, 2013

Splintering Over Syria

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President Obama’s historic charge to Congress to authorize his use of force against Bashar al-Assad will, undoubtedly, prove to be one of the most consequential foreign policy decisions of his presidency. The decision, hailed by supporters as a prudent shift away from unchecked presidential war powers and criticized by detractors as yet another charge to the indictment of President Obama’s ineffectual leadership. Leaving aside, for a moment, the constitutional, historical, and geopolitical significance of the President’s decision to seek congressional authorization for war, one cannot underestimate the potency of this move as a political stratagem. President Obama, as he seeks to turn the douse the blood-red fires of civil war raging in Syria, has ignited the flame of internecine warfare within the Republican Party.

Since their 2008 electoral humiliation, the Republican Party has been declared dead almost monthly. Countless “autopsies” and trips to the political wilderness have revealed, time and again, that the GOP is a deeply fragmented party. It has not yet been so fragmented, however, to splinter. Wall Street tycoons, evangelical preachers, and Tea Party patriots were able to band together, despite the hatred surely flowing amongst them, in last November’s disappointing attempt to dethrone their arch-nemesis. Democrats, sensing opportunity, have tried repeatedly to fracture what seemed almost broken, pursuing issues such as gay marriage and immigration reform in an attempt to turn Republicans against each other. In large measure, they have failed.

Now, by demanding military action against the nefarious Syrian regime, President Obama may finally have placed the final straw on the camel’s — or, in the case, the elephant’s — back. By laying out a methodical, convincing, and morally evocative case for intervention, the Obama administration has separated the old bulls of the Republican Party from the antediluvian isolations who occupy its right flank. There are, of course, the usual suspects; Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the last of the Cold Warriors, would leap at the chance to invade nearly almost nation between Turkey and Japan. But, then again, McCain and Graham have been a reasonably reliable source of foreign policy sanity within the Obama Era GOP, with immense political statures and “maverick” reputations that allow them these heretical descents into real-world analysis of geopolitical issues.

What is more surprising than the Senators’ support is the full-throated defense of the President issued by House Speaker John Boehner and his serpentine second-in-command, Eric Cantor. Boehner and Cantor, while not necessarily figures who lurk in the shadows of the far right, have been more or less paralyzed by a large gang of House Republicans whose rabid opposition to any and all Obama initiatives makes reason an untenable position for otherwise reasonable politicians. Syria, however, seems to be the Speaker’s breaking point. He would not stand up to his caucus on immigration reform, or on a “grand bargain” to rework our nation’s fiscal future; when it comes to punishing Bashar al-Assad, however, John Boehner is not a man who will hide beneath his spray-tan. Boehner and Cantor’s support of Obama has revealed the deepest fault line within the Republican Party. On one end, standing with Boehner, Cantor, McCain, Graham, and Governer Chris Christie, are the Republicans who, at the end of the day, seek a return to the hawkish, pro-business, and governmentally useful party of Reagan and both Bushes. Despite their usual antipathy towards Barack Obama, they can now concede his legitimacy as a commander-in-chief unafraid to use the American military might they so often accuse him for ignoring.

The Republican Party standing on the other side of this fault line, populated by strikingly conservative figures such as Rand Paul and, to a certain extent, Marco Rubio, does not represent any incarnation of the GOP remotely attached to the public conception of George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. Some are political hacks who hitched themselves (or would have hitched themselves) proudly to the 2003 invasion of Iraq but are now so opposed to Obama that their hatred has short-circuited their judgment on this historic matter; such conduct should more or less disqualify them from the American political tradition. Yet there are others whose opposition is genuine. Isolationist, libertarian, and almost fundamentally opposed to the government of the United States in the capacity in which it functions today, these new Republicans are the harbingers of the next earthquake on the American political scene. It is expected that left-wing Democrats oppose Obama’s war effort; they are, after all, consistently dovish and further to the left of the Administration. Anti-war Republicans, however, represent a shift towards conservative isolationism not seen since the days in which Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations was defeated in the Senate by Republicans such as Henry Cabot Lodge.

This genuine splinter between Republican neocons and Republican isolationists could shred the jingoist bombast with which the GOP is used to discussing foreign policy. It is now Democrats who seem more or less united, for better or for worse, beneath the banner of American hawkishness. By annexing the Republican Party’s usual strength — unhesitating support for American intervention on the global stage — President Obama and his Democratic allies have placed the two irreconcilably disparate wings of the Republican Party in direct conflict with each other.  If this Syrian intervention blossoms into something more prolonged than expected, this intra-party rift will only continue to grow.

In 2016, any mention of Syria during a Republican primary debate will, at the very least, be entertaining.

Original Author: Jacob Glick