The potential presidential candidates for 2016 only have to look at Secretary of State John Kerry, the man making President Obama's case for military action against Syria, to be reminded of the perils of voting for a war.
Kerry's 2003 vote to authorize the war in Iraq badly undercut his anti-war message when he ran against President George W. Bush in 2004, which was only further confused by Kerry's infamous assertion: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."
What he was trying to say — that he voted for an earlier, Democratic version of a supplemental appropriation for the war and subsequently opposed a Republican version — was lost in the media buzz. He was labeled by the GOP as a "flip-flopper" and went on to lose the election.
Kerry's example looms large for 2016 candidates. A military strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could act as an effective deterrent against the use of chemical weapons, while bolstering the U.S.'s role as the guarantor of global security. Or it could exacerbate a sectarian conflict and draw the U.S. military into an Iraq-style quagmire.
So how are the top potential presidential contenders approaching the issue?
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
Throughout the conflict in Syria, Paul has stayed true to the libertarian, isolationist views that his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), popularized during the lead-up to Iraq. On Tuesday, Rand Paul said it would be "insulting" if Obama launched an attack against Syria if Congress votes against it, while telling Meet the Press earlier in the week that "it's a mistake to get involved in the Syrian civil war."
Paul is using the debate over Syria to strengthen his position as the leader of the growing anti-interventionist wing of the GOP, much to the irritation of hawks like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Perhaps reacting to polls showing that a majority of voters oppose military action, Paul has even threatened to filibuster the Syria vote.
The risk for Paul is if Obama's prescription for Syria turns out to be a success. His main advantage, however, is that his foreign policy views are clear and consistent. And as Beth Reinhard at National Journal puts it, "The vote on Syria will put Paul right where he wants to be: At odds with a Democratic administration profoundly mistrusted by the conservatives and tea-party activists who dominate GOP primaries."
Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.)
For months, Rubio has been calling on Obama to take military action in Syria, presumably to claim the mantle of a traditional GOP hawk in a 2016 primary. But now that Obama has come around, Rubio finds himself in the unenviable position of being on Obama's side.
Rubio's awkward solution, so far, is to condemn the president for "leading from behind" and failing to launch an attack two years ago. "What we're seeing here now is proof and an example of when America ignores these problems, these problems don't ignore us," Rubio said at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday.
That is a fine (some would say nearly incoherent) line to walk. "What remains to be seen is whether Rubio’s shift in rhetoric is seen as a political pandering to conservatives who are still mad at him over his stance on immigration legislation or if it’s seen as a thoughtful stand by a senator who has methodically built a foreign policy repertoire," says Manu Raju at Politico.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)
Taking a page from Paul's playbook, the Texas senator has used the Syria conflict as an opportunity to lambaste Obama in characteristically incendiary fashion. Cruz on Tuesday said the U.S. should not become "Al Qaeda's air force," a reference to the fact that a U.S. military strike could help Syrian opposition groups that have ties to the terrorist network.
Cruz also can claim a minor victory, in the sense that Obama deferred to Congress after Cruz and other Republicans demanded a greater say in the situation in Syria. But that could create problems for Cruz as well, especially with the still-formidable hawkish wing of his party. Here's Allysia Finley at The Wall Street Journal:
[I]f Congress rejects the president's request, the Texas senator and other Republicans who demanded Congressional authorization arguably bear a disproportionate share of the responsibility. [Wall Street Journal]
The former secretary of State remained conspicuously silent on the issue until Tuesday, when her aide told the press that Clinton supported "the president's effort to enlist the Congress in pursuing a strong and targeted response to the Assad regime's horrific use of chemical weapons."
Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution told Politico that Clinton was "in the middle of a very ironic dilemma," because "she probably lost the nomination for the presidency in 2008 because Barack Obama had spoken out about a stupid war and now he's put her in the place where she either supports him or speaks out against it."
Clinton seems to be betting that supporting military action won't come back to bite her in 2016, like it did in 2008. Considering the comparatively muted opposition of the anti-war left this time around, it might be a good bet.
Indeed, Clinton was part of a faction within the Obama administration that wanted to take action against Syria sooner. More from Politico:
Lawrence Kolb of the Center for American Progress argued that the position Clinton outlined Monday night — supporting the president in going to Congress and a limited strike, while also being able to remind people she’d wished she had been able to do more while at State — puts her in a "no-lose position." [Politico]
Vice President Joe Biden has been hawkish on Syria ever since news of the chemical weapons attack emerged.
"There is no doubt who is responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons, the Syrian regime," he said last week, stating that Assad "must be held accountable."
Biden's chances in 2016, much like Obama's legacy, could turn on whether or not a campaign against Assad is deemed wise and effective.