The Bushies’ Case for War

by Eliana Johnson

Top Bush administration officials have mobilized to sway a skeptical Republican party to authorize military intervention in Syria. As National Review Online reported, former national security adviser Stephen Hadley and former undersecretary of defense for policy Eric Edelman this week led a briefing on Capitol Hill for Republican legislative directors and chiefs of staff. 

The majority of House Republicans are fiercely opposed to an intervention. The White House, in part, may be to blame for this. Lawmakers hosting town-hall meetings in their districts are taking heat from their constituents on a daily basis, and the White House did not call Congress back from its August recess, which would have brought members back to Washington. “It’s just astonishing to me that the president and his team would throw this thing up on the Hill without having done the least bit of preparation for this,” says a source present at the briefing. While the debate over Syria rages on Capitol Hill, the vast majority of House Republicans “are getting the hell beat out of them in their districts.” 

At the Hadley-Edelman session, the source says, the former Bush aides may have done “more to help the president than he and his team are doing to help themselves.” 

What arguments did they use to persuade the skeptical staffers of their case? Hadley, now a senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace, and Edelman, now a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University, made two overarching points, according to the source, the first relating to American credibility and the second relating to the looming Iranian threat. 

“Our system is different from the British system,” they stressed, in which the head of government and the head of state remain separate. Whereas the British Parliament’s rejection of the Cameron-backed proposal for military action in Syria was not a “catastrophe for British power,” Congress’s rejection of the Obama-backed resolution would weaken America’s hand in global affairs. “Even if he speaks ill-advisedly, the nation’s credibility is at stake,” Hadley and Edelman told the staffers. The staffers gathered on Capitol Hill, according to the source, expressed an “enormous level of skepticism” at their claims. 

Hadley and Edelman urged House members to view the Syria issue in a broad context, in particular through the prism of Iran and America’s goal of extracting a negotiated settlement from President Rouhani and the mullahs. “In the Middle East, all issues are linked to each other,” they told the group. They encouraged a consideration of the Syria problem in light of the prospect of Iran armed with a nuclear weapon and, even absent that, as a nation seeking hegemony in the Gulf. 

Their argument: If you hope to have a negotiated settlement with Iran, they only way you are going to get there is if the Iranians actually believe the use of force lies behind America’s efforts to negotiate. Hamstringing the president’s effort to use force against Syria now will “absolutely cripple and destroy” the chance to reach a diplomatic settlement with Iran. 

The source tells me that, after making brief opening statements, Hadley and Edelman focused primarily on fielding questions from the group. They were forthcoming. How can we believe the administration will do something serious? What happens when and if the radicals take power? The answer to the concerns among rank-and-file House members, Hadley and Edelman argued, is not a “no, but” vote; it’s a “yes, but” vote — the “but” being a push from Congress to make Syria part of a larger strategy in the Middle East; to degrade Assad’s military capabilities and change the momentum on the battlefield; and begin to move toward a post-Assad Syria. The House, they said, should give the president the authority to act while instructing him to act properly. (Bill Kristol made a similar case in The Weekly Standard.) 

While urging support for the resolution at hand, the duo also offered withering criticism of the Obama administration. ”We’ve come to this point because of two years of serial missteps by the Obama administration,” they contended, and the administration should have “put more resources into finding out who the opposition was.” 

The president has put country in a disastrous geostrategic position with regard to Syria the Middle East more broadly, they added. “This started out as a non-violent protest against a terrible dictator and the administration assumed he would go quickly like all the others, that their declarative statements would be sufficient to push him from power. Rather than expand their options, they have narrowed their options,” they said. 

After this briefing — and another by American ambassador to Syria Robert Ford — Republicans in the House remain, by and large, against an intervention, and the White House looks to be in trouble; the Washington Post’s current vote count has 226 members either voting “no” or leaning “no.” If that count is accurate and the leaners vote no, the resolution would fail in the House.