WASHINGTON — Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is in a spirited debate — with himself.
Four months ago, Inhofe demanded that “President Obama step up and exhibit the leadership required” to show Syria’s Bashar al-Assad “that his barbaric actions have consequences.” Writing in USA Today, Inhofe added: “Continued inaction by the president, after establishing a clear red line, will embolden Assad and his benefactors in Tehran to continue their brutal assault against the Syrian people.” Inhofe floated the idea of a “no-fly” zone or even “boots on the ground.”
But last week, as Obama moved toward military action to enforce his “red line,” Inhofe issued a statement saying that “our military has no money left” for a strike on Syria. On “Fox News Sunday,” Inhofe reiterated his position that “I would oppose going in and having military intervention against Syria.” He said that Obama should not have drawn a red line in the first place.
As Inhofe’s conversion on the road to Damascus indicates, Republicans don’t like what Obama is doing in Syria — whatever it is.
Some protested when Obama threatened to bomb Syria without congressional approval; others then criticized him for seeking congressional approval. They complain that Obama’s use-of-force resolution is too broad; they argue that it would amount to only a “pinprick.” They assert that he should have intervened long ago; they say that he has not yet made the case for intervening. They told him not to go to the United Nations; they scolded him for not pursuing multilateral action. They told him to arm the rebels and, when he did, they said he had done it too late and with insufficient firepower.
Genuine disagreements within the GOP can explain some of the contradictions. And it’s a fair criticism to say that Obama waited too long to act, even if there was never a consensus for action. But the one thing that seems to unite the opposition is the belief that Obama is wrong, no matter what.
Typical of that approach is Paul Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee, who issued a have-it-both-ways statement Tuesday that offered no support for military action. “The President has some work to do to recover from his grave missteps in Syria,” Ryan said. “He needs to clearly demonstrate that the use of military force would strengthen America’s security.”
In 2011, Ryan called for a muscular response to Syria, which he accused of a “brutal crackdown” and killing its citizens. Said Ryan then: “We have a responsibility to speak boldly for those whose voices are denied by the jackbooted thugs of the tired tyrants of Syria and Iran.”
On Tuesday, House Republican leaders took steps to build support for authorizing the use of force. Still, they protected their right to criticize Obama when things go wrong. House Speaker John Boehner said he would support the resolution, but his office issued a statement saying, “It is the president’s responsibility to make his case.”
Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he, too, would support the resolution, but he added that “a one-off military strike is not by itself an adequate strategy” yet also said that force should be used “judiciously.”
That sort of waffling is unlikely to unify the fractious GOP.
On one side is Sarah Palin (who wrote a Facebook post titled “Let Allah Sort It Out”), isolationist Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, George W. Bush adviser John Bolton and Iraq war architect Donald Rumsfeld (who hasn’t seen “what our national interest is” in a Syria strike). On the other side are Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who say that anything less than Assad’s ouster and an end to Syria’s civil war would be “an inadequate response.” George W. Bush administration veterans Karl Rove, Doug Feith, Paul Bremer, Elliott Abrams and Dan Senor joined leading neoconservatives in delivering a similar message.
As Republican lawmakers line up on both sides, the ambitious Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., honed his have-it-both-ways approach. “Because the President failed to act in the right way at the right time, we are now left with no good options,” he wrote last week. He suggested that Obama choose between all (a comprehensive plan “to remove Assad and replace him with a stable, secular government”) or nothing (“simply focus our resources on helping our allies in the region” deal with an unstable Syria).
Rest assured, Rubio will criticize Obama either way.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.