When Hawks (Suddenly) Become Doves

Marin Cogan
September 14, 2013

Eleven years ago, nearly every Republican member of Congress (and many Democrats) voted to authorize President Bush to use force against Iraq. From the reluctant followers to the most-ardent cheerleaders, many of them are now the leading doubters of President Obama’s push for limited strikes against Syria. Some have adopted the rhetoric popular with the libertarian faction of their party; others mimic the skepticism that characterized the Left after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They don’t see the national security benefits and wonder what an American military intervention could accomplish. Some question the intelligence reports of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons; others believe the reports but say the conflict isn’t our problem. None expect Americans to be greeted as liberators.

There are 84 Republicans currently serving who voted for the Iraq war in 2002. Of them, only 11 support intervening in Syria. The rest are undecided or leaning against. They say that Syria is not Iraq, that the situations are totally different. Really, they insist, this decision has nothing to do with the other. But their arguments sometimes uncannily echo the antiwar arguments of 2002 and 2003—the ones they publicly, and loudly, reviled. That remained true even after a Russian plan to disarm Syria of chemical weapons took an imminent strike off the agenda.

For instance, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, forcefully made the case for invading Iraq. In 2002, he said on Meet the Press, “Our intelligence system has said that we know that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction—I believe, including nuclear.” In a September 2002 committee hearing with then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Inhofe referred to a speech Bush gave to the United Nations about the conditions that could keep him from pursuing a preemptive strike against Iraq. One of those conditions, the president noted, would be that Saddam Hussein must “immediately and unconditionally forswear, disclose, and remove or destroy all weapons of mass destruction, long-range missiles, and all related material.” Inhofe was, he said, disturbed by the prospect of “us going into another round of hand-wringing” over whether to take action. He reminded those at the hearing of Saddam’s “long history of lying about this,” and called inspections “nothing more than a stall tactic, a delay.”

But even after Assad used weapons of mass destruction, Inhofe says the decision to oppose U.S. action was easy. For him, the primary reason is the lack of military readiness, thanks to spending cuts he blames on the administration. He recalls Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey’s remarks before his committee in February on the impact of sequestration, that “if ever the force is so degraded and so unready, and then we’re asked to use it, it would be immoral.” Inhofe, an Army veteran, cited readiness concerns in his 2002 committee hearing comments, too. But even without the budget cuts, Inhofe says he still would likely have opposed a Syria intervention, as he also opposed the Bosnia intervention in 1995. At that time, he argued that the United States did not intervene when mass killings took place in African countries—a refrain more common among libertarians or the Left. “The same argument could be made here,” he says. “Why are we getting involved in another conflict in the Middle East?”

It also seems less important among these members to back the president now than it did then. In 2002, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, explained his support for the war as a way to empower Bush in foreign affairs. “Saddam and the world community don’t respect us unless we get tough,” he told The Dallas Morning News. “I believe in giving [the president] diplomatic leverage and the authority to use military force if necessary.” But this week, Barton argued that “Iraq was totally different” and ticked off why he felt at the time that Saddam’s actions required a military response while Assad’s didn’t. “No one in the government or [among] the rebels are making threats against ... the United States or doing any kind of action that’s against the national interest of the United States. It’s a bad situation, and I would like to see Assad toppled, but I don’t think you’re going to get a much better government if Assad goes down.”

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was one of the last Republican holdouts to make a decision to vote for intervention in Iraq. She remembers the phone call that changed her mind, on the eve of the vote, from Secretary of State Colin Powell, “who made the argument, ironically, that the best possibility of avoiding war was a strong vote to go to war, and that that might bring Saddam to the peace table. Obviously, that did not happen,” Collins said last week. If the Syria resolution ever comes up for a vote in the Senate, she is again leaning toward opposition. “I’m concerned about the lack of international support; and, most of all, I disagree with the administration’s portrayal of the choices being either to launch a military strike or do nothing,” she says. “I think, as the most recent developments with Russia show, there are other options that we could undertake.”

Collins, like many of her colleagues, is hopeful about the Russian plan for the United Nations to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. It is another of the turns in the saga that few could have imagined 11 years ago, when war hawks clucked about international institutions’ lack of credibility.