Share

Opinion: Columnists

Syria strike debate splits conservative defense hawks

By |
Politics,Philip Klein,Columnists,Barack Obama,Rand Paul,Syria,Analysis,Middle East,Bashar Assad

Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and the Center for Security Policy’s Frank Gaffney are often described as “uber-hawks” for their support for a forceful projection of American power abroad.

Neither of them would ever be confused with the likes of non-interventionist Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Yet, like Paul and his fellow non-interventionists, Gaffney and Bolton have spoken out against targeting the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad with military strikes. So what gives?

A decade ago, foreign policy thinkers on the Right who supported the Iraq War typically had the “neoconservative” label slapped on them. Now, conservatives who oppose action in Syria are seen as part of a growing wave of anti-interventionist sentiment.

In both cases, these labels are overly simplistic in a way that obscures the real nuances in foreign policy thought on the right.

Most self-identified conservatives backed the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. But beneath the surface of this unity, there were real differences between those who had narrower rationale for supporting action focused on American national interests and those who had broader ambitions about building democracy in the Arab world.

In early 2011, as popular uprisings started to spread throughout the Middle East that would become known as the Arab Spring, those differences were exposed.

“Neoconservatives thought the Arab Spring would move the region in a positive direction, whereas the more (national) interest-oriented conservatives believed it might not work out because the conditions weren’t right and because the abstract emphasis on democracy doesn’t necessarily comport with the actual circumstances around the world,” Bolton said.

Bolton, who volunteered for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign as a high school student, has often been inaccurately described as a neoconservative, despite his skepticism of the idea that democracy promotion should be a pillar of U.S. foreign policy. He said he doesn’t think America has an interest in taking sides militarily in Syria’s ongoing civil war.

A longtime hawk, Gaffney worked in the Defense Department during the Reagan administration and is currently most often associated with being a passionate critic of radical Islam.

He backed the Iraq War, but has been a skeptic of the Arab Spring, which he has viewed as strengthening Islamist forces in the Middle East. He opposed President Obama’s intervention in Libya and has come out strongly against taking military action in Syria.

In a Monday phone conversation, Gaffney said it would be “ill-advised” to risk America’s limited military resources on a civil war that could spread.

Additionally, by changing the momentum on the battlefield, he argued, it would benefit Islamic jihadist elements fighting Assad, including al Qaeda, making it even more likely that they could get their hands on dangerous chemical weapons.

Despite finding himself in agreement with the noninterventionist strain of the Republican Party on military action in Syria, Gaffney cautioned against lumping all opponents of the war together. After all, he would still support military action against Iran’s nuclear program.

“I certainly don’t subscribe to isolationist sympathies, or, for that matter, libertarian nostrums about restricting America to defense of our borders and nothing more, or otherwise recoiling from international leadership,” Gaffney said.

“I’m just of the view, and I think there are lots of us who are, that leadership should be exercised sensibly and not simply because somebody claims we have a responsibility to enforce international norms.”

Bolton also echoed this note of caution. “I think there are neoisolationists in the Republican Party, but I don’t think that’s a good description for everybody who opposes the use of military force in Syria,” he said.

View article comments Leave a comment