When Hawks (Suddenly) Become Doves

Republicans who supported the Iraq War but oppose intervention in Syria are walking a very thin — sometimes imperceptible — line.

Senator Susan Collins ( R - Maine ) meets U.S. Army soldiers during a visit at Bagram airbase, about 60 kim. north of Kabul, Afghanistan Monday Jan.7, 2002. A delegation of nine U.S. senators visited the base Monday. 
Marin Cogan
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Marin Cogan
Sept. 12, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

El­ev­en years ago, nearly every Re­pub­lic­an mem­ber of Con­gress (and many Demo­crats) voted to au­thor­ize Pres­id­ent Bush to use force against Ir­aq. From the re­luct­ant fol­low­ers to the most-ar­dent cheer­lead­ers, many of them are now the lead­ing doubters of Pres­id­ent Obama’s push for lim­ited strikes against Syr­ia. Some have ad­op­ted the rhet­or­ic pop­u­lar with the liber­tari­an fac­tion of their party; oth­ers mim­ic the skep­ti­cism that char­ac­ter­ized the Left after the Sept. 11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks. They don’t see the na­tion­al se­cur­ity be­ne­fits and won­der what an Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion could ac­com­plish. Some ques­tion the in­tel­li­gence re­ports of Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad’s use of chem­ic­al weapons; oth­ers be­lieve the re­ports but say the con­flict isn’t our prob­lem. None ex­pect Amer­ic­ans to be greeted as lib­er­at­ors.

There are 84 Re­pub­lic­ans cur­rently serving who voted for the Ir­aq war in 2002. Of them, only 11 sup­port in­ter­ven­ing in Syr­ia. The rest are un­de­cided or lean­ing against. They say that Syr­ia is not Ir­aq, that the situ­ations are totally dif­fer­ent. Really, they in­sist, this de­cision has noth­ing to do with the oth­er. But their ar­gu­ments some­times un­can­nily echo the an­ti­war ar­gu­ments of 2002 and 2003 — the ones they pub­licly, and loudly, re­viled. That re­mained true even after a Rus­si­an plan to dis­arm Syr­ia of chem­ic­al weapons took an im­min­ent strike off the agenda.

For in­stance, Sen. James In­hofe, R-Okla., the rank­ing mem­ber on the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, force­fully made the case for in­vad­ing Ir­aq. In 2002, he said on Meet the Press, “Our in­tel­li­gence sys­tem has said that we know that Sad­dam Hus­sein has weapons of mass de­struc­tion — I be­lieve, in­clud­ing nuc­le­ar.” In a Septem­ber 2002 com­mit­tee hear­ing with then-De­fense Sec­ret­ary Don­ald Rums­feld, In­hofe re­ferred to a speech Bush gave to the United Na­tions about the con­di­tions that could keep him from pur­su­ing a pree­mpt­ive strike against Ir­aq. One of those con­di­tions, the pres­id­ent noted, would be that Sad­dam Hus­sein must “im­me­di­ately and un­con­di­tion­ally for­swear, dis­close, and re­move or des­troy all weapons of mass de­struc­tion, long-range mis­siles, and all re­lated ma­ter­i­al.” In­hofe was, he said, dis­turbed by the pro­spect of “us go­ing in­to an­oth­er round of hand-wringing” over wheth­er to take ac­tion. He re­minded those at the hear­ing of Sad­dam’s “long his­tory of ly­ing about this,” and called in­spec­tions “noth­ing more than a stall tac­tic, a delay.”

But even after As­sad used weapons of mass de­struc­tion, In­hofe says the de­cision to op­pose U.S. ac­tion was easy. For him, the primary reas­on is the lack of mil­it­ary read­i­ness, thanks to spend­ing cuts he blames on the ad­min­is­tra­tion. He re­calls Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair­man Mar­tin De­mp­sey’s re­marks be­fore his com­mit­tee in Feb­ru­ary on the im­pact of se­quest­ra­tion, that “if ever the force is so de­graded and so un­ready, and then we’re asked to use it, it would be im­mor­al.” In­hofe, an Army vet­er­an, cited read­i­ness con­cerns in his 2002 com­mit­tee hear­ing com­ments, too. But even without the budget cuts, In­hofe says he still would likely have op­posed a Syr­ia in­ter­ven­tion, as he also op­posed the Bos­nia in­ter­ven­tion in 1995. At that time, he ar­gued that the United States did not in­ter­vene when mass killings took place in Afric­an coun­tries — a re­frain more com­mon among liber­tari­ans or the Left. “The same ar­gu­ment could be made here,” he says. “Why are we get­ting in­volved in an­oth­er con­flict in the Middle East?”

It also seems less im­port­ant among these mem­bers to back the pres­id­ent now than it did then. In 2002, Rep. Joe Bar­ton, R-Texas, ex­plained his sup­port for the war as a way to em­power Bush in for­eign af­fairs. “Sad­dam and the world com­munity don’t re­spect us un­less we get tough,” he told The Dal­las Morn­ing News. “I be­lieve in giv­ing [the pres­id­ent] dip­lo­mat­ic lever­age and the au­thor­ity to use mil­it­ary force if ne­ces­sary.” But this week, Bar­ton ar­gued that “Ir­aq was totally dif­fer­ent” and ticked off why he felt at the time that Sad­dam’s ac­tions re­quired a mil­it­ary re­sponse while As­sad’s didn’t. “No one in the gov­ern­ment or [among] the rebels are mak­ing threats against … the United States or do­ing any kind of ac­tion that’s against the na­tion­al in­terest of the United States. It’s a bad situ­ation, and I would like to see As­sad toppled, but I don’t think you’re go­ing to get a much bet­ter gov­ern­ment if As­sad goes down.”

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was one of the last Re­pub­lic­an hol­d­outs to make a de­cision to vote for in­ter­ven­tion in Ir­aq. She re­mem­bers the phone call that changed her mind, on the eve of the vote, from Sec­ret­ary of State Colin Pow­ell, “who made the ar­gu­ment, iron­ic­ally, that the best pos­sib­il­ity of avoid­ing war was a strong vote to go to war, and that that might bring Sad­dam to the peace table. Ob­vi­ously, that did not hap­pen,” Collins said last week. If the Syr­ia res­ol­u­tion ever comes up for a vote in the Sen­ate, she is again lean­ing to­ward op­pos­i­tion. “I’m con­cerned about the lack of in­ter­na­tion­al sup­port; and, most of all, I dis­agree with the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s por­tray­al of the choices be­ing either to launch a mil­it­ary strike or do noth­ing,” she says. “I think, as the most re­cent de­vel­op­ments with Rus­sia show, there are oth­er op­tions that we could un­der­take.”

Collins, like many of her col­leagues, is hope­ful about the Rus­si­an plan for the United Na­tions to se­cure and des­troy Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons. It is an­oth­er of the turns in the saga that few could have ima­gined 11 years ago, when war hawks clucked about in­ter­na­tion­al in­sti­tu­tions’ lack of cred­ib­il­ity.

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