Week In Politics: Mulling A Syria Strike

Robert Siegel talks with regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks with The New York Times. They discuss the latest over U.S. military intervention in Syria.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And so, with both the G20 and Washington divided over the prospect of a strike against Syria and President Obama facing a steep uphill climb to win support at home and abroad, we turn to politics and our Friday regulars, David Brooks of the New York Times, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Good to see you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

SIEGEL: E.J., President Obama is struggling to win international enforcement of a redline that he enunciated and he's struggling for support of an authorizing resolution that he decided to put to Congress. Is the basic political confrontation these days Obama versus Obama?

DIONNE: Well, there is a sense in which there is Obama versus Obama because until President Assad used those chemical weapons - and I think the evidence is pretty overwhelming - he had been very reluctant to intervene in Syria for all the reasons opponents of this are saying - that it's not clear we want either side to win, this is very dangerous.

Now, he's saying we have no choice. Now I happen to agree with him on that, but he has put himself in a very difficult position. He cannot lose this vote. If he loses this vote, I think he loses enormous authority to act around the world. It's why I think ultimately it will pass. But I think it's going to be very, very difficult and there is an enormous burden on him to bring around, especially, Democrats to his position.

SIEGEL: David, is this an especially mismanaged response to a foreign crisis?

BROOKS: I'm pretty sure. It is pretty much the worst week of certainly his second term, maybe his whole five years. It's sort of mind boggling that his second term prestige is based on championing a policy he doesn't really support in a region he's trying to get out of. And it's based on the idea that he hasn't really thought one step down the road at each course in this policy, whether it was establishing the redline, going to the House, leaking the targets, establishing the policy.

I don't think he's that enthusiastic about the policy, but he's sort of trapped in now. And I agree with E.J., for his credibility, for the credibility of the United States, it sort of has to pass, but it's not something he's really played like a chess grand master.

SIEGEL: Well, I want to ask you about some of the other people who figure in this. The present and previous House speakers, Boehner and Pelosi, have announced their support. There are two past presidential candidates playing prominent roles, McCain and Kerry. Hillary Clinton appears to be supportive, but not very vocally so. And some future hopefuls, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio are against it.

Of all of these characters, David, anyone stand out to you that's especially interesting?

BROOKS: I'd go with Paul and Rubio. It used to be you had a Republican Party that was instinctively toward intervention, especially against terror, especially against weapons of mass destruction. That was the Republican Party from, say, 1945 to maybe 2012. That party doesn't exist anymore. John Boehner has been trying to avoid a major foreign policy vote for a reason and that's because it would expose the rising isolationist wing within the party.

We're seeing it now with Paul and Rubio. We're going to see it, I think, quite strikingly in the House vote and we do not have a Republican Party that is likely to support this no matter what happens.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

DIONNE: I think it's really striking that all those names you've listed earlier - Boehner, Pelosi, McCain, Kerry, Hillary Clinton - these are older politicians who have been around a long time. Their instinct is to say we cannot undercut a president in foreign policy and they're all supporting him.

I think Clinton was very careful in the way she did this. She did it quietly. She didn't want to undercut Kerry, and there's no point in her jumping in here. But I want to make a big distinction between Ron Paul and Marco Rubio...

SIEGEL: Rand Paul.

DIONNE: Rand Paul, I'm sorry, and Marco Rubio. Paul has always been, as was his father, anti-interventionist. This is very consistent. Rubio surprised a lot of people. He had been a hawk. Some saw him as a neo-con. And he flipped here, or at least he appeared to flip here. I think there are going to be a lot of questions about what does Marco Rubio really believe after this.

SIEGEL: His argument was along the lines of this would have made more sense a couple of years ago, it's too late, and therefore it's either not enough or too much, I'm not quite sure.

BROOKS: Well, that's sort of true. I mean, it would have been better two years ago to arm the opposition back when it was still a reasonable opposition. The essential argument for this policy is that, A, it's a really stupid policy, it probably won't achieve much, but it's better than the alternative. That's not really a really strong argument here.

SIEGEL: You mean the alternative being to let the...

BROOKS: To let the thing go, and if I were the administration, I would really be playing up the Iran card big. We're not going to make a big effect on Syria. We're probably not going to alter the calculus of whether gasses are used in the future. But we could improve our reputation, or at least not totally debilitate our reputation, as we go into some confrontation with Iran. That's really the big picture here.

DIONNE: If he wins this, one of the big reasons is going to be Iran, that there are enough Republicans worried about future confrontations with Iran not to want to undercut him on that. I think the other argument he's going to make is, look, this - there is a coherent policy beneath this. We want to move to negotiations. We won't be able to move the parties to negotiations if we stand back from action right now. And I think you're going to hear that from him on Tuesday.

SIEGEL: David has talked about the rise or the return of Republican anti-interventionism. The Democrats, on the other hand, we're not that surprise that there are so many who are opposed to an intervention. Barack Obama admits he's president in large part because he was opposed to the war in Iraq from the start.

Is this one that Nancy Pelosi can apply the whips and bring a lot of Democrats around to or is too close to the bone?

DIONNE: I think the Democratic Party has become more, rather than less, dovish over time. And the party in the House has become more dovish. But I think the argument that she is going to have to make is we, Democrats, can't afford to undercut our own president.

I think on the Republican side, you are seeing the reappearance of the anti-interventionists. They were there on Bosnia and Kosovo. There was a lot of Republican opposition to that. That disappeared when Bush was president. It was suppressed. And now you're seeing it come back when they feel the freedom to do it with Obama as president and/or a desire to just stop anything he wants.

BROOKS: Yeah, I'm - if this whole thing is hanging on liberal hawks, that's a really rare creature. There were some before Iraq. There are really very few anymore. And the idea that House Democrats are going to cast an extremely unpopular vote they don't believe in just to help out a president they don't particularly like, I think that's dubious. So I think this is more or less in peril.

SIEGEL: Yeah, we're facing one of those remarkable moments in Washington when there will be votes, we assume in both Houses, and we really at this point have no idea how they'll turn out.

DIONNE: That's true. I still think it passes, David. It's not liberal hawks. It's Democrats who don't want to undercut the president.

BROOKS: We'll see.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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