Replaying History, Both Political Parties Debate Acting Against Syria

President Obama’s surprising decision to seek congressional authorization for a strike on Syria has set off an historically resonant debate in both political parties, the outcome of which will affect American politics and policy for years to come.

Since Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, a muscular internationalism (often with democratic overtones) has been the default position within the Republican Party.  But disappointments with George W. Bush’s handling of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have combined with public war weariness to spark a resurgence of quasi-isolationist sentiment in conservative ranks.  In the House, Speaker John Boehner has endorsed Obama’s call for action against Syria even as many rank-and-file Republicans have come out in opposition to it.  In the Senate, Republicans led by Rand Paul (R-KY) have reminded their colleagues that limited government at home and restraint overseas go together.  Heirs of Reagan such as John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have pushed back vigorously and may well end up supporting a modified version of the authorizing resolution the Obama administration has proposed.   

In effect, Republicans are reopening the debate of the late 1940s and early 1950s between Sen. Robert Taft—the leader of the isolationist, anti-New Deal forces–and former general Dwight Eisenhower over the future course of their party.  With Eisenhower’s victory over Taft in the 1952 Republican convention, the party made its peace both with the New Deal and with the internationalism Sen. Arthur Vandenburg (R-MI) had championed after World War Two.  Rand Paul’s brand of libertarianism is reminiscent of Taft, and the debate over Syria offers him a golden opportunity to articulate his governing philosophy before a national audience.  If he can persuade a majority of Senate Republicans to reject American action in Syria, he will have redefined 21st century conservatism—and become a leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry has emerged unexpectedly as the touchstone of the debate in both political parties.  Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, entered public life as an eloquent critic of that war, famously asking in 1971, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”  During the past week, Kerry’s two statements have eloquently laid out the administration’s case for taking action against the Assad regime.  Last weekend, Sen. Paul threw Kerry’s youthful words back in his face, asking “How can you ask a man to be the first one to die for a mistake?”   

Meanwhile, briefing a group of skeptical House Democrats, Kerry said that the United States was facing a “Munich moment” in deciding how to respond to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons.  Veterans of the arguments made to defend the Vietnam War experienced a shock of recognition, because the World War Two generation that led the United States into that war had invoked the Munich analogy as justification.  So Kerry, the foe of that war, has stepped into the shoes of the generation he so ardently opposed, while today’s anti-war Democrats are comparing Syria to Vietnam.

Democrats, too, face a momentous choice.  After the end of the Cold War, their party had coalesced around the use of American power to prevent genocide and other gross violations of human rights.  After failing to intervene in Rwanda, a decision Bill Clinton later termed his worst mistake, the Clinton administration used air power against Serbian-led ethnic cleansing in the Balkan, a strategy the Obama administration revisited as Ghaddafi’s troops reached the outskirts of Benghazi.  But for many of today’s Democrats, Iraq serves as the moral equivalent of Vietnam and evokes comparable doubts about the use of American power.  If Congressional Democrats desert President Obama in large numbers, they will call into question the basic premise of their party’s post-Cold War internationalism. 

A generation ago, the country struggled with the legacy of Vietnam and paid a price as it did.  We will soon find out whether today’s Iraq syndrome is as potent as the Vietnam syndrome of the 1970s and, if so, what price this generation of Americans will pay for it.