The arguments so far for and against attacking Syria…


Hawks, Doves, Fence Sitters 

There are nine kinds of Syria bombing opponents in Congress, and 11 kinds of bombing supporters. 

By |Posted Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, at 6:37 PM

US Republican Senator John McCain (L) and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (R) address a news conference on August 6, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt.

Sens. John McCain (L) and Lindsey Graham (R) have expressed support for intervention in Syria.

Photo by Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

During the Cold War and for a period after the attacks of 9/11, a national security consensus existed between the two parties. When it came to foreign adventures, the president’s party would support him, and a significant portion of the opposition (sometimes a majority) would go along, too. This consensus has been fraying. On issues from President Obama’s use of drones, to the breadth of U.S. surveillance, to how to respond to the coup in Egypt, there is confusion, instability, and partisanship in Washington.

This is why the Congressional debate over the president’s decision to attack Syria is so fraught. The well-worn partisan splits don’t tell us much. House Republican leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor are supporting the president, but they’re leaving it up to Obama to make the case to colleagues who don’t like him and and many of whose constituents are against action. A recent Pew poll found 48 percent of voters, including 40 percent of Republicans oppose action. (Only 29 percent of the public favors action and only 35 percent of Republicans do.)

Isolationist Republicans are aligned with Democratic doves in opposing the move. Republican hawks are aligning with Democrats anxious to support the president and who believe in using force for humanitarian ends. The consensus will only really be known after the vote and may not tell us much beyond the narrow limits of the minutely tailored congressional authorization. The attack is supposed to punish Bashar al-Assad without changing the balance of power in the ongoing civil war (like stopping a fugitive to give him a speeding ticket before letting the chase continue), which means members may tailor their reasons for voting in equally careful ways. As they do so, here is a preliminary typology of the distinct positions on intervention in Syria:


  1. It will help Islamists: “Who is on America’s side over there? If the rebels win, will they be American allies? Assad’s definitely not an American ally. But I’m not convinced anybody on the Islamic side … will be American allies.” —Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
  2. Syria will be another Iraq: “We must learn the lessons of the past. Lessons from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and others. …We must recognize that what happens in Syria does not stay in Syria; the implications for the region are dire.” —Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.
  3. Chaos will ensue: “Beyond the potential for escalating the conflict and the killing, we risk danger to our ally Israel, involvement by the Russians and the Iranians, and blowback to the United States by radical groups operating in the region.” —Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn. 
  4. Americans don’t want it: “Americans don’t support war in Syria and neither does Congress. No clear U.S. interest or strategy. We don’t want entanglement in this war.”  —Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich.
  5. Not in our national security interest: “After over a decade of war in the Middle East, there needs to be compelling evidence that there is an imminent threat to the security of the American people or our allies before any military action is taken. I do not believe that this situation meets that threshold.” —Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V.
  6. A strike won’t do anything: “If we’re not going to destroy or secure the [chemical]stocks, if we’re not trying to change the regime, if this is all about making a point—and not a particularly effective one at that—then that strikes me as a rather frivolous use of American military power.” —Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
  7. Saving credibility isn’t a reason to attack: “The United States should only engage militarily when it is pursuing a clear and attainable national security goal. Military action taken simply to send a message or save face does not meet that standard.” —Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
  8. Can’t do everything everywhere: “What are the limitations on U.S. power. … At what point are we going to stop being responsible for all the problems in the world?” —Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
  9. Evidence is weak: “Yes, I saw the classified documents yesterday. They were pretty thin.” —Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, after a classified briefing on evidence of a chemical attack by the Syrian regime.

Fence Sitters:

  1. We bomb and then what? “I’m concerned about the consequences of a military strike in Syria, and what happens with step two, three and four after that.” —Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. 
  2. The resolution needs to be narrowed: “The White House has put forward a proposed bill authorizing the use of force that, as drafted, is far too broad and open ended, and could be used to justify everything from a limited cruise missile strike to a no fly zone and the introduction of American ground troops” —Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.


  1. Do it and do it now: ““We should strike in Syria today. The use of chemical weapons was inhumane, and those responsible should be forced to suffer the consequences.” —Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Fla.
  2. OK, but make it small: “Whatever action the United States takes, it has to be limited action. This can’t be an open-ended commitment, and it definitely should not lead to American boots on the ground.” —Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

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