Kerry vs. Kerry? It’s Not Simply Partisan Hypocrisy on Syria

It’s not simply hypocrisy. Partisan loyalty and personal feelings evolve with time. By Jamelle Bouie.

It’s hard to square the John Kerry of 2013 with the John Kerry of 1971. Then, as a young Vietnam War veteran, Kerry pressed lawmakers on how they could ask a man to be the “last man to die for a mistake.” Now, as secretary of State, he’s pressing for American intervention in Syria, in response to Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against his own citizens. His mantra to skeptical lawmakers amounts to “trust us,” something that’s prompted at least one senator—Rand Paul of Kentucky—to ask his own question, “How can you [Kerry] ask a man to be the first one to die for a mistake?”

Kerry’s current stance is also a shift from where he was in 2004, when he campaigned against George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq War. In fact, there’s been a shift among Democrats as a whole. At least 35 Senate Democrats support or are likely to support an intervention in Syria, along with several dozen House Democrats. That includes Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin—who, in his first speech on the Senate floor in 2007, called for the Bush administration to withdraw troops from Iraq—and New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, who voted against the 2003 resolution that gave President Bush authority for the Iraq War.

On the other side, there are scores of Republicans whose boundless enthusiasm for war has waned considerably. “I am strongly opposed to American military involvement in Syria,” said Texas Rep. John Culberson in a statement. “One side is Assad and Iran, the other side is al Qaeda. We have no business supporting either side.” Ten years earlier, however, he was an eager supporter of the war in Iraq. “We have to trust our commander in chief,” he said, referring to President Bush, “who has proven to be such a magnificent wartime president, and to have such impeccable leadership skills.” Likewise, as my colleague Ben Jacobs points out, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma was far friendlier to the intervention in Iraq—which he connected to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001—than he is to the proposed intervention in Syria, which he dismisses as “cruise-missile diplomacy.”

Writing for Mother Jones, Kevin Drum calls out this hypocrisy, “I have to say that watching Republican pols and conservative pundits get on their high horses about Syria has been pretty nauseating.” It is annoying, especially since—as Drum notes—quite a few of these lawmakers were pressing the Obama administration to “do something” earlier. But it’s worth noting the extent to which GOP reticence—and Democratic support—is understandable, even if it doesn’t have much to do with the particular case of Syria.

Simply put, a large part of politics is trust. For as much as issues are emphasized in elections, it’s also true that voters evaluate candidates on the basis of values and judgment. It’s not uncommon—though less common than it was—for people to support candidates on the other side of the aisle for reasons of trust. To use a current example, if Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli loses his bid for the Virginia governorship this fall, it will—to some degree—be because he lost the support of Virginia Republicans who didn’t trust him to responsibly govern the state.

Something similar is true of lawmakers when they have to make tough decisions. Partisanship plays a huge part, but so does trust. To wit, the aforementioned James Inhofe was also skeptical of Bill Clinton’s decision to intervene in Kosovo. And indeed, it’s why, in their statements against the Syria intervention, Republicans have focused on execution and follow-through, not just the idea itself. Culberson, for instance, focused on President Obama’s proposed mission, which—he said—lacked “clear military objectives or clear policy goals.” And in a speech explaining his vote against intervention, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio ended with an indictment of Obama’s judgment: “The president chose to let others lead instead,” he said, pointing to Obama’s early reluctance to intervene with material support to the Syrian rebels, “and now we’re dealing with the consequences of his inaction.”

Given his foreign-policy views, it’s not a stretch to say Rubio would have supported President Bush in the run-up to the Iraq War. But, as a Republican and a conservative, Rubio would have been more inclined to trust Bush’s judgment. On the flip side, who opposed the war in Iraq—or, in the case of Kerry, harshly criticized it—but now support the intervention in Syria? It’s a case of different circumstances and different people—Democrats trust the Democratic president to do the right thing. If they didn’t, it’s hard to imagine they would have supported him in the first place.

None of this is to defend this reasoning. On issues of war and peace, we should expect our representatives to decide with more than just partisan loyalty and personal feelings that evolve with time. But it’s understandable that these factors influence tough decisions, and I don’t think there’s anything hypocritical about it.