Republican Hawks Pivot on Syria

by Robert Costa
GOP senators are working on a diplomatic option.

It’s 1 p.m. on Tuesday and Senator John McCain of Arizona steps off a train in the Senate’s basement, on his way to a closed-door luncheon with President Obama and Senate Republicans. But before he makes his way upstairs, he huddles with reporters and shares an update about his attempt to craft a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis. “I’m very skeptical,” he says, referring to Russia’s interest in brokering a deal to remove Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons. “But we’re working on an addition to [a United Nations] resolution to make sure proper conditions are met, with firm commitments for actions and dates.”

For McCain, the Senate GOP’s high-profile hawk, it’s not so much a departure from his long-held position on Syria — he still wants to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. But it is a pivot — and a recognition of the political reality on Capitol Hill, where the Obama administration is struggling to find the votes to authorize the use of force. As that effort has all but collapsed, McCain and a bipartisan group of nine other senators have been recalculating their strategy and hoping to shape the emerging option.

“The way it has transpired seems almost accidental,” McCain says. A few days ago, he expected the president to make the case for war in a speech to the nation on Tuesday evening. Instead, it appears the administration is working behind the scenes to come up with another approach that would avert war by asking the United Nations to oversee the removal of Assad’s chemical weapons. “The White House is working closely with us, and [chief of staff] Denis McDonough just called me an hour ago,” McCain says, signaling the seriousness of the new tactic.

A Republican aide familiar with the discussions says the White House reached out to Republican senators on Monday after concluding the authorization might not win enough votes for Senate passage, and after Russia became involved in the international deliberations. The White House’s pitch to the Senate’s power brokers was simple: They need GOP involvement to get a “third way” through Congress, and they need to move fast to draft alternative legislation that can win wide support.

A second Republican aide, who is close to the Senate GOP leadership, says some White House staffers are now talking about Congress’s not even voting on a war resolution, should this bipartisan group finalize legislation. The buzz, the aide adds, is that the White House is consulting with the U.N. and allies, particularly the United Kingdom and France, about how to make this new plan work. And if it’s possible to bring a diplomatic resolution forward, they’ll push it.

“The president’s advisers are going to walk through the proposal with senators at the Democratic and Republican lunches and then take calls and questions for the rest of the day, taking the temperature of senators and seeing the level of support,” says the aide. “I’m not ready to say that Senate Republicans are there at all, but there is interest in doing something other than giving this White House approval to fire missiles at Assad.”

This development makes the Senate GOP’s hawks key players. Since the situation is fragile and fluid, the last thing the White House wants is a revolt from influential foreign-policy players. “The smartest thing the White House has done so far is reach out to Republicans to help write up the resolution,” says a veteran Senate Republican. “They’ve messed nearly everything else up, and I don’t think the president is doing himself any favors with his luncheon, but we’re getting closer to a compromise; it’s on the horizon.”

The details of the resolution are still being worked out, but McCain is optimistic that the bipartisan group can quickly agree on key elements. The thrust of the plan is to set a deadline by which Assad must hand over control of his chemical weapons to the U.N. If he misses the deadline, he’ll risk an attack by the United States. “We’d call for immediate action, and there would be international control over Assad’s chemical-weapon stocks,” McCain says. “It could be done in a matter of days, and a whole lot of people are working on trying to make this happen.”

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, McCain’s friend and fellow hawk, is also hopeful. “If there is a real possibility the U.N. could defang Assad, and come up with a way to transfer his chemical weapons to the international community, I would certainly like that outcome,” he says. “If that becomes a real possibility, you can factor that resolution into what we already have on the floor.” After pushing for military action for weeks, he’s slightly uncomfortable with “changing horses in midstream,” but he acknowledges that support for a strike is dwindling.

Other Senate Republican hawks working with the White House include Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.). Aides say the White House is informally consulting with a growing number of Republicans. “We’re in the early stages,” Chambliss says. “I hope it starts to materialize.”

The bipartisan group met for the first time only on Monday night, then met for a second time on Tuesday afternoon in McCain’s office. More meetings are scheduled for Wednesday. Senate Democrats involved in the effort include Chuck Schumer of New York, Chris Coons of Delaware, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, though publicly undecided on the plan, are said to be generally supportive of it. “Leader McConnell has already spoken against military action; he’s keeping in touch with McCain and the rest about what they’re up to,” says the leadership aide. “Everybody is keeping tabs on how it unfolds.”

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a leading anti-war Republican, tells me he isn’t surprised by this eleventh-hour push for diplomacy, especially after he met with House Democrats on Tuesday for breakfast, where several liberals spoke up in opposition to the president. “There is a bipartisan consensus,” he says. “I don’t think [the authorization] will pass in the House right now, and even in the Senate, I’m starting to wonder if there are 60 votes to get something through.”

“I’m just tickled to death,” says Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who opposes the war resolution. “I think there’s momentum. You see the world changing, the international issues changing, and senators are trying to find a comfort zone.”

— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.