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September 23, 2017

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Republican role reversal at play with Syria as GOP sounds cry for peace

If there is one common theme uniting the lawmakers urging President Barack Obama to stay out of Syria, it is the fear that engaging militarily, even with limitations, might drag the United States into another long-term war.

There’s an irony to this refrain, born of bitter experience in Afghanistan and Iraq: Its main singers come from the Republican Party, which launched and defended the past decade of wars in the first place.

“I will not vote to send my son, your son or anyone’s daughter to war unless a compelling American interest is present,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a rabble-rouser for the anti-war cause. “I am not convinced that we have a compelling interest in the Syrian civil war.”

By the time President Barack Obama made the case for the military option to the nation last week, a significant majority of both House and Senate Republicans had already either declared or strongly indicated that they opposed military strikes in Syria.

The Nevada delegation’s Republicans weren’t in Washington a decade ago, when Congress voted to commit troops in Iraq. So for them, the comparison is fair game.

“The American people, including the vast majority of my constituents, are rightly wary of getting involved in another Middle Eastern conflict,” Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., said in declaring his opposition to limited strikes in Syria.

“I just dropped my youngest daughter off at college. Since second grade, we’ve been in a war ... most of the kids I teach in Sunday school know nothing different than war,” Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said in explaining why he too was opposed.

Heck and Heller were not completely divorced from the Iraq War while it was being waged. Heck volunteered and served in Iraq in 2006, while Heller took votes related to the late-war “surge,” voting against pulling troops out of Iraq early, in his first term as a representative.

But neither one was in Congress for the 2002 Iraq resolution, when lawmakers such as Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted to commit troops.

“The Iraq vote and the Iraq experience, weirdly, is cutting both ways,” said Eric Herzik, a political scientist at UNR. “Interventionists can say, 'Look, we voted to do this in the past on bad evidence and moral imperative ... now we have much better evidence than in Iraq, and you’re going to vote against it?' But the peace faction can also say, 'Well, that’s why we shouldn’t go into Syria.'”

The logic doesn’t fully explain why lawmakers have declared themselves for and against Syria strikes. About half of the Republicans who came out against them were either in the House or Senate a decade ago when Congress was voting on Iraq (in the House, there are fewer Republicans who have logged that much time in the Capitol).

Republicans who have not shied from engaging in wars in the past have another incentive in voting no: Distancing themselves from a president with whom they have been engaging in open political warfare for the past five years.

Such political undercurrents are difficult to ignore, even for those who don’t have an Iraq record to defend.

“To convince the Democrats to go into Iraq, we said there would be no boots on the ground,” Heller said, echoing the pledge Obama made to keep military engagement in Syria limited.

Obama, it should be noted, doesn’t have an Iraq legacy clouding his reputation. He wasn’t in Congress in 2003, he made good on his pledge to bring troops home in 2010, and throughout his career in the Senate and White House, he was against the Iraq war.

But that doesn’t mean he can escape comparisons either.

“You didn’t have to be there to look back more than 10 years and say, ‘We entered Iraq under false pretense, and it did not go well,’” Herzik said. “You didn’t have to be there and have a vote to say Iraq is our model.”

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