GOP Defense Hawks Take Flight

Republican hawks are embattled. The 2016 election will reveal whether they can go back on the attack, or whether a series of protracted conflicts abroad has finally rendered them impotent and obsolete.

July-August 2014

SENATOR JOHN McCain can easily recall the stumble that he believes prompted allies and adversaries alike to question the firmness of American resolve. President Barack Obama planned to launch an offensive military strike against the Syrian regime for crossing his publicly declared “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. Lacking a UN Security Council resolution or even the support of close allies such as Great Britain, however, Obama wanted the backing of Congress. So the president invited his one-time political rival and frequent critic McCain to the Oval Office, along with Senator Lindsey Graham. Together they stand in for a once-reliable constituency of defense and foreign-policy hawks on Capitol Hill, and their active support would be critical in rallying a balky Congress to back military action.

“President Obama said he wanted to accomplish three goals: degrading the capability of the Assad regime, upgrading the position of the Free Syrian Army and changing the momentum on the battlefield against Assad,” McCain told me in a telephone interview. “The president said he would do what was necessary to get that done.” Thus assured, Graham and McCain met with reporters outside the White House and backed Obama’s planned use of military force in the strongest possible terms, setting the stage for the most consequential foreign-policy vote since the 2002 authorization for the Iraq War. “If President Obama is willing to make the case to the American people,” McCain said, then “I’m ready to go to my colleagues in the Congress and say, ‘Now’s the time for us to come together before it’s too late.’”

And yet Congress did not come together. The Congress and the country that the Obama administration and its unlikely allies tried to rally behind forceful action in Syria last year were far different from the vengeful superpower that fixed Saddam Hussein in its crosshairs a decade ago following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Two of the longest, most costly and most unsatisfying wars in the nation’s history, combined with the Great Recession, had seen to that. An Associated Press poll in September 2013 indicated that a majority of Democrats (53 percent) wanted Congress to reject their own party’s commander in chief in his call for military strikes on Syria. Remarkably, 73 percent of Republicans also wanted Congress to oppose the president’s call to action.

Why did Congress fail to rally behind the president? One obvious reason was that after the fiasco in Iraq and the country’s longest war in Afghanistan, the American public was skittish about another military intervention in the Middle East. Another is that there were few, if any, hawkish Democrats left to buck public opinion. And in the Republican Party, the wings of traditional defense hawks have been clipped by Tea Party legislators. Republican neoconservatives generally supportive of calls for military action have been marginalized within the caucus, not only by controversies surrounding the Iraq War, but also by the electoral defeats of McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, both of whom espoused platforms of aggressive U.S. leadership, peace through military strength and “American exceptionalism.” In an era of hyperpartisanship, it’s also true that fewer and fewer lawmakers can resist the temptation to take a shot at the commander in chief from the opposing party.

As a result of those trends and political currents, Congress appeared ready to reject Obama’s request for authority to use military force last September, with an unlikely coalition of antiwar Democrats and partisan Republicans appearing especially strong in the House. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was forced to argue that Obama really didn’t need congressional approval to use military force after all. Faced with the prospect of acting unilaterally without even the support of a majority in Congress, Obama himself retreated from his own “red line” and accepted a last-minute deal proffered by Moscow.

McCain learned of Obama’s U-turn on the television news. “President Obama informed us of his commitment to act militarily in Syria, and then I had to find out secondhand he revoked that commitment. That had never happened to me before,” said McCain, sounding more disappointed and saddened than angry. Meanwhile, McCain’s own party agreed to take the Pentagon hostage during the fierce budget battles of recent years, then was complicit in shooting the captive with the imposition of across-the-board spending caps known as sequestration. Some Republicans have joined the Democratic Left in railing against the National Security Agency’s surveillance methods and data collection, and out of partisan pique Republicans recently delayed passing a bill to aid Ukraine even as Russian troops were annexing Crimea by force. And Senator Rand Paul rose to prominence in large part based on a thirteen-hour filibuster he gave last year against drone operations, during which he conjured an American dystopia of the future where U.S. presidents target civilians sitting in neighborhood cafes with Hellfire missiles. Since then, McCain has been reduced to pleading futilely for weaponry for Ukraine. It’s a far cry from Iraq, when McCain, together with Graham and former senator Joseph Lieberman, could successfully push a hawkish agenda.