The confused politics of Syrian intervention

The thing that most people hate about politics is its craven lack of principle.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that the American people are thirsting for a deeply ideological, hard line, principled leader or party to take over the country and implement radical change.

Rather, voters have an aversion to the hypocrisy inherent in so much of politics. They have a deep suspicion (a correct one) that decisions that are being made in Augusta or Washington have little to do with what is best for the country, and rather are dictated by what person and what party is in charge.

When a Republican is in charge, his or her party lines up behind that person and supports them, even when their policies or behavior directly oppose long established party beliefs, simply because that person stands opposed to the hated Democrats.

Democrats, for their part, oppose virtually everything the Republican does as a matter of course, regardless of whether it is something they really disagree with or not.

When a Democrat is in charge, the script is exactly the opposite.

The primary function of both parties – and yes, both parties do it – is to gain as much power as possible, and to oppose and limit the growth of the other party as much as possible.

Because this is the primary motivation, decisions made in government – but most especially at the national level – frequently do not align themselves with ideological consistency, or sacrificial statesmanship, but rather a polluted political chess match.

The partisans on each side are too consumed by tunnel vision to understand this. To each side, their opposition practices this kind of politics, but certainly not their own side.

To a Democrat, the Republicans in Congress during the Obama era are insane, obstructionist, hyper-political beasts who would rather see the country be razed to the ground than give an inch to the president. Entirely missing from their level of comprehension, of course, is that they acted the exact same way when they were in the minority during the presidency of George W. Bush.

The same example could be used on the Republicans, who accused the Democrats of political gamesmanship during the Bush years, while ignoring their own behavior during the Clinton years.

This nonsense has gone on as far back as there has been politics, long before there were Republicans and Democrats. It is the nature of oppositional, bipolar elections.

The frustrating thing for the voter is seeing the rank hypocrisy so clearly, hating it, and yet seeing that nothing ever stops it.

In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton was a rather aggressive interventionist in his foreign policy, getting the United States involved in a number of military adventures, exhausting our supply of cruise missiles, and threatening to invade Iraq. The Republicans felt the foreign interventions were a mistake, and wanted to “stop being the world’s police force.” George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 on a more humble, restrained foreign policy.

Of course, once President Bush was in office and the September 11th attacks occurred, he took on a muscular foreign policy, invading Afghanistan and Iraq, and engaging in nation building. The Democrats, of course, suddenly became allergic to foreign intervention, claiming the world would be a peaceful utopia if they were in charge. Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 on a more humble, restrained foreign policy and an end to war.

Naturally, once President Obama was in office, he decided that surging our presence in Afghanistan was important, and that bombing Libya without congressional approval was appropriate. Republicans suddenly became skeptical of foreign intervention, and the rest is history.

Now, the United States is debating whether to go to war against Syria, in response to the reported use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and virtually every politician involved in the decision has been tied into knots by decades of political gymnastics, that they either have no idea what to do, or look like the worst kind of hypocrites upon making a decision.

Take Secretary of State John Kerry, who rose to national prominence by testifying to Congress about the foolhardiness of involvement with foreign civil wars. He now sits in front of Congress testifying about the desperate need to get involved with foreign civil wars.

The situation in Syria is a serious one, and whether Congress authorizes the president to attack should not be treated lightly. But decades of illogical, counter-intuitive, inconsistent behavior in Washington has led Americans to become very cynical about the debate they are watching. Sadly, that will taint whatever decision Congress ultimately makes.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.