So here, with Congress now trying to figure out what to do about President’s Obama request for funding for the Syrian rebels, we have a glimpse, as rare in its way as an eclipse or a meteor shower, of two Republican pathologies colliding head-on. The first is their biological urge to oppose Obama on all matters. The second is the House Republicans’ chronic eleventh-hour melodramatics about keeping the government funded every September. I could throw in a third—John McCain’s ever-mounting and ever-more-obvious personal bitterness toward Obama—but we’ll lay him aside for today and focus on this joining of the two pathologies, which in the worst-case scenario threatens to derail Obama’s anti-ISIS campaign before it even starts.
Fast background: Congress has to pass a continuing resolution by September 30 or we’ll have a government shutdown again. Actually, in practical terms, it has to pass it within the next few days, because the Jewish holidays are coming and Congress is going on recess so members can go back home and campaign.
In an election year, no one on the GOP side wants to risk a government shutdown (check that—Ted Cruz still kind of does!). The two parties are mostly arguing about the Export-Import Bank, the newest piece of coal for the tea party fire, but that’s the kind of thing they usually agree at the last minute to extend for another six months.
But that was the pre-ISIS state of play. Then we all saw the beheading videos, and fighting the Islamic State became a matter of urgency. Obama had asked Congress for $500 million in aid to the Syrian rebels back in June, but Congress, in its laconic, congressional way, was originally going to wait until next year to get around to that. But now the administration wants that $500 million—which is actually part of a larger $2 billion request that would include other money for operations in Iraq and Ukraine—to be passed now. And it wants it included in the “CR,” as they call it.
As you probably know, the House Republicans met Thursday morning in the aftermath of Obama’s speech to figure out how to proceed. As you probably also know, they didn’t figure it out. Some support Obama’s request—John Boehner does, and the relevant committee chairmen. Others, of course, don’t trust Obama. Some want to keep the Syria money in the CR. Others want to pry it out and have two votes, one on government funding and one on the Syria dough.
What would be the point of this? There is no point. Long Island Republican Peter King said something in Politico about how “it sends a stronger message” if it’s a separate vote, which is nonsense. Can you picture Bashar al-Assad sitting in Damascus talking with a top aide and saying, “Well, I don’t think $500 million is a serious amount of money,” and the aide says, “Gee, boss, I don’t know, I mean, they passed it on a separate vote”?
Please. The only reason to have a separate vote is to diddle the White House around. “Assert congressional prerogative” is the more euphemistic way to put it, but I can guarantee you that if President Romney were asking for this money, the only thing Republicans would be debating would be how many times they could each vote yea. Similarly, the shocking demand among some Republicans for greater action—for ground troops, even—is equally hypocritical. If Obama had proposed ground troops, they’d be hyperventilating about how scandalous it was of him to want to send our troops into harm’s way. They’re just looking for a hook—the handiest excuse to oppose Obama that they can find.
Obviously, passing the $500 million in the quickest way possible is what sends the strongest “message,” as if anyone even cares about such messages. What matters is that the money gets authorized. If the House Republicans pull it out of the resolution and make it a free-standing vote that will happen later, then all that accomplishes is that it gives talk-radio land and the conservative Twittersphere a few days to badger Republicans about casting a pro-Obama vote (and right before an election). And if that happens, and the right finds some excuse to work itself into a lather over this, Boehner may just decide that the easiest thing is to send them home without voting on Syria at all.
In one of his more famous essays, “Pacifism and the War,” George Orwell wrote that pacifism “is objectively pro-fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other.” Orwell was writing of course about World War II, which I concede this is not (although I submit that it would be nice to see similar rhetorical restraint from the Republicans, who never tire of invoking Munich when they’re harping on Obama for not being tough enough). But if it isn’t World War II, neither is it the last Iraq War, which was completely unprovoked and based on lies. ISIS has killed Americans, and its threat to the region is clear and obvious. The Islamic State is evil by any measure. House Republicans may not trust the president and may prefer to see all this done differently. But without going as far as Orwell did (he later walked back the essay, after all) we can fairly ask if they want to have done nothing to check the Islamic State’s march.
I actually don’t think it will come to that. Even so, if I were a moderate Syrian Sunni, I wouldn’t be putting in orders for any tactical ballistic missiles just yet.