Syria Crisis

09.05.13

Iraq Hawks’ Flip-Flop

They couldn’t wait to invade Iraq. Now they don’t want to go near Syria.

For the first time since the Iraq War in 2002, Congress is debating military action in the Middle East. But this time around, the resistance is palpable—most notably from the very Republicans who supported President Bush in the run-up to Iraq. Their reasons for opposing intervention in Syria differ. Some are scarred by what they see as mistakes made in Iraq. Others seem to be motivated by Obama himself, and the urge to oppose him at any cost. 

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Clockwise, from top left: Dana Rohrabacher, Ralph Hall, John Culberson, and John Shimkus. (Getty (3); AP (1))

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) said in a statement, “I am strongly opposed to American military involvement in Syria. One side is Assad and Iran, the other side is al Qaeda. We have no business supporting either side.” Culberson went on to attack the president’s proposal to Congress. “President Obama’s proposed mission does not include clear military objectives or clear policy goals,” said Culberson. “The information the President has shared with Congress leaves many unanswered questions. He must explain to Congress and to the American people what vital national interests are at stake and how our involvement in Syria will secure these interests.”

In 2002, Culberson took an entirely different approach with Iraq when George Bush was President. At the time he said, “We have to trust our commander in chief, who has proven to be such a magnificent wartime president, and to have such impeccable leadership skills.”

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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel makes a case for a strike on Syria.

Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), who was then a Democrat, echoed Culberson’s approach (Hall switched parties in 2004). He said at the time, “In the vote, it's going to appear to be George W. Bush versus Saddam Hussein, and I don't think a lot of politicians have the courage to vote for Saddam."

Hall has now changed his tune. In a statement, he said, “I have received hundreds of calls and letters from constituents expressing strong opposition to any U.S. involvement in Syria, and I plan to vote ‘no’ in accordance with their views.”

Of course, no one expects opinions on foreign policy to be static over the past decade, and the situation in Syria today isn’t the same as the one in Iraq back in 2002. Limited missile strikes are also a very different proposition from a full-scale invasion. But to hear once-hawkish lawmakers now forcefully denounce any intervention in Syria is to understand the profound effect that the Iraq War has had on U.S. foreign policy.

Another Iraq hawk was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). In 2002, he condemned Hussein as “a monster who is a gangster heading a gangster regime who threatens the world. He has been spending billions of dollars on developing chemical and biological weapons, which he wants to use against the United States because he has a blood grudge against us.” Rohrabacher also expressed his disappointment at those who found fault in the Bush administration’s handling of the situation. He said Bush “has gone and jumped through hoops to make sure that we can conduct this operation to free ourselves from this threat in a very professional way and as I say, the nitpicking is certainly not appreciated on this side of the aisle and I would hope by many people on that side of the aisle as well.”

A decade later, Rohrabacher says he’s learned his lesson. “For those who say we should intervene against Assad because he's a dictator,” he said in a statement, “we should have learned our lesson in Iraq, which cost us the lives of 6,000 Americans and tens of thousands wounded, not to mention a trillion dollars added to the debt that hangs around the necks of the American people. Even worse, those we sacrificed for are not grateful.”

Sen. Jim Inhofe, who supported the Iraq War because of his fears of Hussein’s nuclear program, now opposes intervention in Syria.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) was a reluctant vote for the Iraq War in 2002, when he was in a reelection fight against Democrat David Phelps. A military veteran, Shimkus said at the time that those congressmen “with military backgrounds are probably more cautious than those who don't” have them. Shimkus now seems to regret that vote, saying in a statement, “I trusted [the intelligence community’s] assessment, our President, and the Secretary of State as he made the case before the UN. I supported the President's request and voted yes. The search for weapons of mass destruction came up empty, and cost our nation lives and money.”

Shimkus now worries that “a strike, although ‘limited,’ could very well be the spark for the tinder that engages the United States in another drawn out campaign in the Middle East.” As a result, the nine-term congressman concluded, “until I see evidence of a real threat against the United States or our allies or unless the international community reaches a consensus and leads, I am not convinced that a limited strike against Syria at this time is warranted.”

Senators have flipped as well. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who supported the Iraq War because of his fears of Hussein’s nuclear program, now opposes intervention in Syria. In 2002, he said, “we watched what happened on the 11th of September, we saw the planes going into the towers. If that had been the weapon of choice of the terrorist, which would be a nuclear warhead on a missile, then there would be nothing but a piece of charcoal left.” Now, Inhofe dismisses the calls for military intervention in Syria as “cruise-missile diplomacy,” and says “no one should vote to authorize an act of war on Syria."

Other Republicans who have come out against military intervention in Syria but supported the Iraq War in 2002 include Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts, both from Kansas, as well as four other congressmen: Randy Forbes (R-VA), Tom Latham (R-IA), and Don Young (R-AR); one Democrat, Jim Matheson of Utah, also voted for the Iraq War and has come out against military action in Syria.

And while many Iraq War supporters in the GOP are now cautious about Syria, there are quite a few Democratic doves from the Bush administration who now favor military intervention in Syria—most obviously, Barack Obama. He’s not alone. When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10–7–1 to send a resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria to the Senate floor, there were three committee members, Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who supported intervention in Syria but voted against the Iraq War resolution in 2002.