On Thursday, the Senate overwhelmingly approved President Obama’s request to fund the training and arming of Syrian rebels as part of a larger strategy to defeat ISIS. For those Republican senators who aspire to the White House, the debate over whether to grant that authority was an opportunity to display their foreign policy acumen – and to throw a few verbal punches.
The vote was freighted with concern among both Republicans and Democrats that the president’s request was misguided or a matter of too little, too late. Some felt it was inappropriate to rush to judgment before Congress had more time to study and debate Obama’s strategy for defeating ISIS.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a likely 2016 GOP presidential candidate, kicked things off by saying the administration hadn’t learned from past mistakes and that arming the so-called moderate rebels would almost guarantee more U.S. weapons would go to ISIS. “I warned a year ago that involving ourselves in Syria’s civil war was a mistake,” Paul said. “An inescapable irony is that someday the arms we supply will be used against us or Israel. That day is now.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) bemoaned the fact that Obama had not intervened in the Syrian civil war until now – and that he’d therefore diminished the prospects of success. “There is no guarantee of success, there is none. But there is a guarantee of failure if we do not even try, and try we must.”
When it was his turn, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) spoke instead about immigration and the need to prevent Obama from granting “amnesty” to undocumented immigrants. But Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), a close Cruz ally, was adamant that the rebel training authorization should have been stripped from the continuing resolution.
Lee’s concern was “that what we refer to as the ‘moderate rebels’ are fragmented and decentralized,” he said. “Their membership is fluid and often lacking in common goals…. [Earlier] President Obama called the idea of arming Syrian rebels a fantasy – a fantasy that as he put it was never in the cards. Now he is seeking authorization for it.”
The issue was whether to use a spending bill designed to keep the government operating through Dec. 11 as a vehicle for approving Obama’s military authorization request – a tactic many Republicans said was inappropriate for so grave a decision. Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who guided the bill for the Democratic leadership, impatiently snapped at members who made that argument, saying there was still time this year to debate the president’s war powers and that without the bill’s passage the government would shut down again.
President Obama and NATO allies had much riding on the outcome of the two-day drama, in which the Senate gave final approval to the roughly $1 trillion stopgap spending measure by a vote of 78 to 22, after the House approved it on a 273 to 156 bipartisan vote. On the final Senate vote, Rubio voted to support, while Paul, Cruz and Lee voted against the request.
While the focus was on the growing crisis in Iraq and Syria and the doubts about Obama’s strategy for destroying ISIS, there was a clear undertone of 2016 GOP presidential politics in the chamber. In the midst of his floor speech, Rand Paul pledged he would never send U.S. soldiers into the Middle East – a promise that might come back to haunt him in the presidential campaign depending on how the crisis plays out.
“I’m not sending any American soldiers,” he said. “I’m not sending your son, your daughter or mine over to the middle of that chaos. The people who live there need to stand up and fight.”
Here are excerpts of other comments on the president’s request for authority by some GOP presidential wannabees:
Rand Paul on the Senate floor: “Even those of us who have been reluctant to get involved in Middle Eastern wars feel now that American interests are threatened, that our consulates and our embassy is threatened. We feel that if ISIS is left to its own devices, maybe they will fulfill what they have boasted – an attack on our homeland. So, yes, we must now defend ourselves from these barbarous jihadists, but let’s not compound the problem by arming feckless rebels in Syria who seem to be merely a pit stop for weapons that are really on their way to ISIS.”
Marco Rubio on the Senate floor: “We are called to decide what to do [about] a very real threat that if left unconfronted will become a very real danger to the people we represent here in this country. Now the president has come forward with a plan – a plan I wish he had come forward with six months ago that I called for three months ago. But I suppose that like in most things, better late than never – even if late means that our chances of success have been minimized. Even if it will cost more money and even if it now will take longer.”
Jeb Bush in a tweet on August 20: “Genocide of Christians, threats to the US, now the beheading of an American. The ISIS are thugs and must be stopped.”
Paul Ryan in a news interview early this month: “If we don’t do it here and now, it will come to get us. We know where they are. We know what territory they have, so while this is measurable, we should have and execute a campaign to defeat ISIS… ISIS is a terrorist organization unlike any we’ve seen before. They’re like al-Qaeda 3.0. If we do not stand up to this kind of violent jihadism forcefully as the superpower of the world, and finish this problem, then what does that say to tomorrow’s jihadists? On behalf of civilization, we have to deal with this threat comprehensively and swiftly now.”
Ted Cruz to reporters on Capitol Hill this week: “In my view substantive policy decisions should be made by elected members of Congress who are accountable to the voters and we should not have a lame-duck session for anything but true emergency legislation… I do not support arming the rebels in Syria, because the administration has presented no coherent plan for distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys.… Every time I have pressed the administration as to how they would distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, the administration has failed to have an answer that makes any sense.”
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