The politics of the vote on arming and training syrian rebels

This week, the Senate voted 78-22 in favor of arming and training Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. Noah Rothman points out that four possible 2016 presidential contenders were among the “no” votes. They are Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Kristen Gillibrand and Republicans Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. A fifth potential contender, Marco Rubio voted “yes.”

Rothman suggests that the contenders who voted against arming and training the rebels “calculat[e] that this war will not be as popular in 18 months as it is today.” Accordingly, repudiation of Obama’s approach to the war will be a central theme for presidential candidates of both parties. A “no” vote this week sets up that repudiation.

As I see it, the politics of this vote are straightforward for any Democratic presidential contender. Hillary Clinton, or Joe Biden if Clinton doesn’t run, can only be defeated from the left of her Party, just as she was in 2008. So regardless of whether Warren and Gillibrand believe that the war against ISIS will lose popularity, the smart vote politically was “no.” (I don’t mean to say that the vote of either was based on politics, though. Indeed, for Warren, at least, the “no” vote must have come very naturally).

Things are less straightforward on the Republican side. A year ago, the GOP had taken a decidedly non-interventionist turn. Today, it is back to being pro-intervention. Next year, who knows?

But keep in mind that the Senate wasn’t voting to go to war or to authorize the use of American ground troops. Accordingly, this week’s vote was not momentous.

What would it mean for the “war,” as Obama has conceived it, to go badly? It would mean that ISIS is not degraded, much less destroyed. In Syria, it would mean that the rebels we arm don’t fight ISIS or fight ISIS and are defeated. It might mean that more U.S. equipment falls into the hands of ISIS or other jihadist fighters.

These are all bad outcomes. But in the absence of U.S. troops being killed, they shouldn’t carry serious adverse political consequences for Republicans like Rubio who voted to arm and train rebels.

Rubio could argue that arming and training the rebels was the right move, but that Obama failed to provide them with sufficient air support and intelligence, or that the training and arming were poorly executed. Very likely, that argument would be correct.

If Obama’s strategy somehow succeeds in Syria, Rubio will look better than Paul and Cruz on this vote. Moreover, the pro-intervention wing of the GOP will be ascendant with Rubio well-positioned to ride its wave. But even in this unlikely scenario, the vote on arming and training the Syrian rebels isn’t likely to be a political game-changer.

Politics aside, Rubio was a natural “yes” vote and Paul a natural “no.” Cruz was the interesting case. Did he allow political calculation to influence his vote? There’s no way to tell.

My guess is that the fecklessness of Obama’s approach to ISIS and its air of unreality protects Republicans from any serious political consequences, thus allowing them to vote their conscience even if one assumes they normally might not.


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