A moment of silence, please, for a hawkish neoconservative pundit named Liz Cheney. Ever since she became a surrogate for the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign, Cheney seized every chance to slap Democrats on their limp wrists. Once, she criticized John Kerry for saying America had to get “other nations to approve action before we take it to defend this country.” In 2007 she called Bashar al-Assad the leader of an “outlaw regime.” When Cheney entered the 2014 primary for the Wyoming Senate seat currently occupied by avuncular Republican Mike Enzi, Washington Post uber-hawk Jennifer Rubin predicted that the candidate would join the Republicans “who are concerned with the hollowing out of our military and the isolationist trend in the GOP and the country at large.”
Ah, but to get to the Senate, Cheney has to win over living, breathing Republican voters. On Tuesday she told a gathering of the Jackson Hole Tea Party that she’d vote against a resolution to strike chemical weapons targets in Syria; the Obama administration had no plan, and, anyway, it should have acted earlier. “The press will try to portray this Syria debate as a battle between wings of the Republican Party,” she warned them.
Touché, I guess, but how was that the media’s fault? There’s no measure of public opinion, no anecdote or graph,that finds Republicans ready to support airstrikes in Syria. The Pew poll finds Cheney’s party narrowly opposed, by a 5-point margin. Members who’ve been holding meetings in their districts have reported zero enthusiasm for airstrikes. “I didn't meet one person who was for going into Syria,” Sen. Rand Paul said yesterday, describing his August travels in Kentucky. “When I told them I was opposed to it, I got standing ovations.”
This probably isn’t the curtain call for neoconservatism or for Republican interventionism, however. On Wednesday interventionists led by John McCain got the resolution they wanted through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after their preferred amendment strengthened it. But they had to overcome a growing conservative consensus that intervention doesn’t bring the results America wants. It’s a delayed—long-delayed—hangover from the debacle in Iraq.
The Obama administration has figured this out, as you can hear when Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before Congress. Whenever a member of Congress worries about strikes leading to a wider war, Kerry promises that they won’t: A missile is just a missile. “I think everybody understands that Iraq left a lot of folks reeling for some period of time,” he told senators Tuesday. “Secretary Hagel and I and many of you sitting on the dais remember Iraq in a special way because we were here for that vote. We voted. And so we are especially sensitive, Chuck and I, to never again asking any member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence.”
Republicans do their part by asking the sort of worst-case-scenario questions that were mostly blown off in 2002. Democrats, too. When they faced the House on Wednesday, Kerry and Hagel were grilled on how much they expected the intervention to cost, and Hagel suffered when he could only say there was a “range” in the “tens of millions.” Florida Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson asked whether Hagel would rule out supplementary funds. Hagel couldn’t. Kerry suggested that a more comprehensive effort to remake Syria would be backed, and presumably funded, by the Arab League. That didn’t move the Republicans. Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Tom Marino, elected in 2010, told Kerry he “didn’t agree with” the decision to invade Iraq and assured him that “soldiers coming home limbless or in body bags is something for which I cannot vote.”
Anyone looking forward from 2002 would find this party unrecognizable. Back then only six Republican members of the House, and zero in the Senate, opposed the authorization of force in Iraq. “You still had the aftertaste of 9/11, and you had popular support for it,” remembers former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis. “Everyone's a little more war-weary after Iraq. America is out there by itself, basically—you had a coalition of the willing in 2002, and now it's just France and the U.S. going it alone. You've even got some of your right-wing organs coming out against this.”
What you have is a return to the politics of 1999, when most Republicans opposed the Clinton administration’s requests for intervention in Kosovo. Kerry harked back to that war after Marino pledged not to send any more troops to their graves. “We had a 28-day campaign, there were 30,000 sorties, none of which is contemplated here, and there were zero casualties,” said Kerry. That just didn’t move Republicans at the time. “I was one of a handful of Republicans who voted for Kosovo,” remembers Davis. “The reason I did is that I didn't want to undermine the president, and actually it worked out pretty well. You take that same rationale to Iraq, though, and you can get embarrassed.”
There is support for Syria strikes coming from the right, but it’s tempered. Max Boot, one of the more influential voices for post-9/11 empire-building, has endorsed the resolution with plenty of caveats about how Obama could botch it. “Congressional skeptics have no choice but to hold their noses and vote ‘aye,’ ” he wrote in Commentary, “all the while hoping that the administration’s use of force will be less anemic than widely advertised.” National Review would only call the strikes better than the “Obama policy of passivity,” worth supporting in order to keep America credible.
That’s really the best the hawks can do—yes, intervene, but pause to reflect on how lousy Obama will handle it. They’re joined by the clipped hawks like Cheney and like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who voted against the resolution in committee. Rubio had told the president to strike early; alas, “unfortunately, the president, with the support of some voices in my own party, chose to let others lead instead,” and made intervention pointless.
It’s just not clear whether these Republicans make up the majority. Not like they used to. The questions for Kerry, Hagel, and Martin Dempsey were informed by a decade of embarrassing Iraq setbacks. “Where is the rest of the world in the response?” asked Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon, who hadn’t been in Congress for the 2002 vote. “Why are we looking at a near go-it-along military mission?” Texas Rep. Ted Poe asked whether Hagel had “made contingency plans for us being in an escalated military conflict in the region.” Hagel said yes.
This is how Republicans talk now. No surprises there. It’s a surprise when a Republican actually defends the Iraq War. Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry baited Kerry by asking him whether certain poison gases could be called “weapons of mass destruction.” Kerry said they could.
“Those two were found in Iraq, used in Iraq before I got there,” said Perry, “for those who say the past administration lied about WMD.”
Kerry didn’t bother responding. The hawks who still talk like that are getting too rare to worry about.