During a week in which Washington’s deep partisan divides were on sharp display, politicians of both parties rallied—albeit cautiously—around President Donald Trump’s decision to strike Syria Thursday night.
The move to order cruise missile strikes on the Al Shayrat Airfield near Homs as punishment for the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikoun drew cheers from Capitol Hill’s most outspoken hawks. But even some of Trump’s most fiery critics offered measured praise.
“Tonight’s strike in Syria appears to be a proportional response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement late Thursday night. And while not explicitly condoning the strike, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren said in a statement: “The use of chemical weapons against innocent Syrian men, women and children is a clear violation of international law. The Syrian regime must be held accountable for this horrific act.”
Other Democrats were more emphatic. “Making sure Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will pay a price is the right thing to do,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement. And Delaware Democrat Chris Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was “encouraged that the Trump administration has felt compelled to act forcefully in Syria against the Assad regime.”
It was, overall, a sharp departure from the partisan vitriol and finger-pointing that has accompanied this week’s debate over confirming Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. In one of the strongest signs of the legislative meltdown, Senate Republicans on Thursday moved to get rid of the filibuster for Supreme Court justices, after Democrats attempted—for the first time in nearly 50 years—to filibuster a justice’s confirmation. Gorsuch was confirmed on a party-line vote Friday morning.
Capitol Hill’s collective reaction to the Syria situation was quite a different story. In fact, the harshest criticism of the strikes came from the president’s fellow Republicans, many of whom share the more isolationist tendencies Trump professed during the 2016 campaign.
“While we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked,” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul noted in his statement. “Our prior interventions in this region have done nothing to make us safer, and Syria will be no different.”
Representative Thomas Massie, another conservative Republican from Kentucky, pointed to hypocrisy in Trump’s move, retweeting a 2013 Trump tweet in which the real estate mogul said it would be a “big mistake” if then-President Barack Obama struck Syria without the approval of Congress. Massie commented Thursday night: “#bigmistake.”
In contrast, internationalists like senators John McCain and Marco Rubio, Republicans who have actively criticized Trump for retreating from the world stage, were jubilant. “Unlike the previous administration, President Trump confronted a pivotal moment in Syria and took action,” McCain and Senate colleague Lindsey Graham said in a joint statement. “For that, he deserves the support of the American people.”
Compare that to McCain’s condemnation, just last week, of statements by Trump’s secretary of state and United Nations ambassador signaling they weren’t interested in ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “I am deeply disturbed,” the Arizona senator said on March 30. “Their suggestion that Assad can stay in power appears to be just as devoid of strategy as President Obama’s pronouncements that ‘Assad must go.’”
That McCain has gone from “disturbed” to wholehearted support of Trump’s Syria policy in a matter of days underscores just how big a departure the attack on Syria is from Trump’s “America First” rhetoric. Until this week, Trump had clearly said he was interested only in combating the Islamic State group (ISIS) and had moved to bar the very people targeted by Assad’s airstrikes from entering the United States as refugees. Just Tuesday, he emphasized he has no interest in being “president of the world.”
But in a 48-hour period, the administration appears to have undergone a dramatic shift in thinking. In the Rose Garden Wednesday, Trump spoke of Assad crossing “many, many lines.” And after saying last week that Assad could stay, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters on Thursday that “with the acts that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.” Then, on Thursday night, two American destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea launched 59 Tomahawk missiles toward Syria.
The dramatic swing in policy has lawmakers across the ideological spectrum calling for Trump to develop a more comprehensive strategy on Syria—and to consult with the legislative branch before taking any further steps to escalate U.S. military involvement. Pelosi even sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan asking him to call the chamber back into session (the members left Washington Thursday for a two-week recess) to debate a congressional authorization for use of force in Syria.
But as Obama found out when he sought congressional approval for strikes in Syria after Assad’s last major chemical attack, in 2013, building consensus for future action is a whole lot harder than rallying support for an isolated military operation that’s already been carried out. Ultimately, Obama did not win support from Congress for strikes, and, citing that, he backed away from his famous “red line” on chemical attacks in Syria. Instead, the U.S. and Russia negotiated a deal to remove Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile from Syria. Obviously, that deal was not fully carried out.
That Trump is facing the same perils was highlighted by the reactions from lawmakers Thursday night and Friday morning. While applauding the professionalism of the strikes, members of Congress expressed wildly divergent positions on the way forward in Syria. Most Democrats emphasized strict limits on further military action amid expanding diplomacy. “Stronger steps involving Russia and Iran—aiders and abettors—are necessary, including increased sanctions. Assad must be prosecuted for war crimes,” said Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, adding that “as a moral and humanitarian matter, providing refuge to Syrian victims of Assad’s atrocities is now more urgent than ever.”
Coons, meanwhile, worried that Trump has “steadily increased the number of American troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria engaged in the fight against ISIS” and said the airstrikes “further complicates our engagement there.”
McCain and Graham, meanwhile, urged Trump to follow the strikes with a significant military escalation, including completely “taking out” Assad’s air force, bolstering support for the vetted Syrian opposition and establishing safe zones “to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis.” Senate colleagues ranging from Warren to Paul would surely balk at such an approach.
Administration officials are headed to Capitol Hill Friday to brief lawmakers on their actions in Syria. Given Trump’s rhetorical zigging and zagging on foreign engagement, everyone on Capitol Hill now wants to know the same thing: What’s next?