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When the Tea Party Speaks for the Majority
Most Americans share its opposition to U.S. military intervention in Syria.

Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.)

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Andrew Stiles

We are constantly being told how the Tea Party is out of touch with the American public, but when it comes to the question of whether Congress should, at President Obama’s request, authorize a military strike in Syria, tea-party lawmakers appears to be among the only ones in line with popular opinion.

As liberal icons such as Nancy Pelosi and the French Republic press for military intervention, polls show that most Americans are opposed — nearly 60 percent, including 54 percent of Democrats, according to a Washington Post/ABC News survey published Tuesday.

Meanwhile, tea-party-backed politicians, predominantly from the class of 2010, including Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) and Representatives Justin Amash (R., Mich.) and Thomas Massie (R., Ky.), have been leading the early opposition to the president’s call for action. Representative Scott Rigell (R., Va.), a member of the 2010 class, spearheaded a letter to the president demanding that he seek congressional authorization for any military action in Syria. The conservative group Heritage Action also opposes missile strikes against the Syrian regime (and hasn’t ruled out a “key vote” on force authorization), as do tea-party favorites such as Sarah Palin, who authored an acerbic Facebook post on the subject last week.

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“So we’re bombing Syria because Syria is bombing Syria? And I’m the idiot?” she wrote. “As I said before, if we are dangerously uncertain of the outcome and are led into war by a Commander-in-chief who can’t recognize that this conflict is pitting Islamic extremists against an authoritarian regime with both sides shouting ‘Allah Akbar’ at each other, then let Allah sort it out.”

Tea-party lawmakers have made a number of arguments against military intervention in Syria. Many fail to see a compelling national interest requiring U.S. involvement in the conflict and are wary of intervening on the side of opposition forces with ties to Islamic extremists. “The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring in to power people friendly to the United States,” Rand Paul said in a statement last week.

Representative Dennis Ross (R., Fla.), who attended a classified briefing on the Syria situation, expressed concern about the lack of an “exit strategy” and about the potential impact of retaliatory strikes against U.S. allies in the Middle East. “I believe that the most prudent option to resolve the conflict in Syria is to continue to work in a more concerted diplomatic manner with other countries in the region,” he said in a statement.

Amash has a fairly simple explanation for his position: His constituents, like most Americans, oppose intervention. The George W. Bush strand of foreign policy, he argued, is “nearly extinct” among the Republican grassroots; he suggested that GOP lawmakers who disagree “haven’t been home in a while.” Amash, who has scheduled eleven town-hall meetings with constituents this week to discuss Syria, said he “can’t recall an issue this lopsided.”

Representative Tim Huelskamp (R., Kan.) echoed this sentiment in a statement over the weekend. “In recent days I have hosted 14 town halls, and the unanimous opinion of Kansans has been clear: Stay out of this quagmire,” he said. “I have seen no evidence of an American national interest in this Syrian civil war.”

On Tuesday, after House speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) announced his support for a military strike following a briefing at the White House, Huelskamp wondered if President Obama could be trusted on the issue. “Since Obama still refuses to tell us the whole truth about Benghazi, why do GOP leaders trust Obama to be truthful about Syria?” he asked on Twitter.

Tennessee state representative Joe Carr (R.), who is mounting a tea-party challenge against incumbent Senator Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), also cited a lack of trust in explaining his opposition to military intervention. “This is an administration that has been cloaked in secrecy since [Obama’s] first inauguration,” he told National Review Online, before reeling off a list of administration scandals — NSA spying, IRS targeting, Fast and Furious, Benghazi. “We can’t get a straight answer out of the president. I don’t believe we’re getting accurate information out of the president now, and I don’t believe we should go to war because he drew an arbitrary red line.” The White House has yet to provide a compelling national-interest argument for intervention, which the vast majority of Tennesseans oppose, he added.

Official organizations such as Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Express have not taken a formal position on the Syrian conflict, stressing that their focus remains primarily on fiscal and constitutional issues. Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, said that while views on foreign policy within the tea-party movement are divergent, there has arisen a “strong element that is disinclined toward foreign engagement” in the form both of foreign aid and of military intervention. The issue of congressional authorization is likely to be important for a movement intent on restoring the constitutional limits on federal power.

In any case, Russo argues, the president has failed to make the case for military action. “Yes, horrendous acts took place, Assad is a vicious dictator, and we have every reason to condemn him,” he says. “But there doesn’t seem to be any clear national interest. Will lobbing some missiles into Syria achieve anything? That’s not clear either.”

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.



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