Of the possible candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, not one potential 2016 hopeful has voiced support for President Barack Obama’s call for a U.S. military strike on Syria.
The hesitancy to authorize an attack against the Syrian government, which the Obama administration alleges was behind a chemical gas attack that killed more than 1,000 civilians in August, suggests that those eyeing possible bids for the White House see the Syria issue as a gamble not worth their bet.
The possible candidates — Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas; former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania; Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan; and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin — have either said they oppose it or remained silent about their opinion.
It is often the case in politics that the safest place to be is on the losing side of a winning vote, especially if the bill is controversial. Regarding Syria, the political blowback could be great for those who supported a strike if it leads to a crisis. The opponents will be able to say they were correct. If the strike goes as planned, however, and the memory soon fades with time — remember when the U.S. launched more than 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles on Libya? — the political consequences of voting no are not nearly as severe.
The first possible Republican presidential hopefuls who had an opportunity to cast an official vote on the resolution, Rubio and Paul, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, rejected it when the committee took up the measure earlier this week.
Rubio, who has been vocal about the need for the U.S. to offer aid to the Syrian rebels but has come short of supporting the type of strike Obama has suggested, said in a statement after the committee vote that he remains “unconvinced that the use of force proposed here will work.”
Paul also voted against the Syria resolution, but he has been more vocal about his opposition. Unlike Rubio, who has advocated for an aggressive foreign policy and developed close relationships in the Senate with hawks like Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Paul is perhaps one of the most prominent advocates for nonintervention in the Senate.
“War should occur only when America is attacked, when it is threatened or when American interests are attacked or threatened,” Paul wrote in an op-ed for Time magazine this week. “I don’t think the situation in Syria passes that test.”
Other lawmakers testing the presidential waters, such as Cruz and Santorum, have already voiced their opposition, and Cruz is likely to vote against the resolution when the Senate takes it up next week.
Of those two, Santorum’s decision to throw his lot in with the opposition is the most surprising. Ever since violence broke out in Syria two years ago, the former presidential candidate has called for U.S. military action, and he has a long history of encouraging aggressive use of force abroad. But on Thursday, Santorum announced he had reversed his position, saying the situation on the ground in Syria has changed.
“When these atrocities in Syria came to light last year, I advocated for military intervention to take out the Assad regime, a strong supporter of Iran. Had President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acted then in support of pro-democracy forces, we could have removed Assad and helped usher in stability for that country. But we have a very different situation today,” Santorum wrote in a letter to supporters. “A military strike would no longer be in our national security interest.”
In the House, Ryan issued a statement on Tuesday that did not signify how he planned to vote on the resolution.
"The president has some work to do to recover from his grave missteps in Syria. He needs to clearly demonstrate that the use of military force would strengthen America's security,” Ryan said. “I want to hear his case to Congress and to the American people."
A look at Ryan’s past comments about the situation in Syria, however, could offer clues on how he will vote. As the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012, Ryan said he agreed with the Obama administration that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would represent “the red line” that would justify some kind of U.S. response.
"We agree with the same red line actually they do on chemical weapons,” Ryan said during a debate with Vice President Joe Biden in October 2012.
It is unclear whether Ryan’s thinking has changed on Syria since that debate. When reached by Yahoo News on Friday, a spokesman for Ryan reiterated the congressman’s remarks from earlier in the week.
With the exception of Santorum, all of the D.C. lawmakers listed above will be asked to go on the record in the House or the Senate when it comes time to vote. But members of Congress are not the only politicians considering presidential runs. Several Republican governors are also looking into the possibility, and among them—Walker, Christie and Jindal—none has publicly announced support for the president’s plan. Instead, all have declined to offer an opinion.
“I’m going to leave that to the people who represent us in Congress,” Christie said this week when asked about his opinion on the strike, according to a report in the Bergen Record. “I empathize with those folks who have relatives back in Syria, but I’m going to let the policy-making be done by the people who are getting the bulk of the briefing on this, which is our federal representatives.”
In Louisiana, Jindal said he was waiting to hear more information before making a decision.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions,” Jindal said, according to NOLA.com. “The president has already said regime change is not the objective. So I'd like to see what the objective is. I think Congress needs to hear that."
Walker was equally vague when he spoke to WKOW, a Madison television station, last week.
"The president, working with other leaders on a global basis, can try and put some pressure on to get things under control in the Middle East and provide stability there, because that will help our economy and if they don't it has an impact," Walker said. "We can do all the good possible. We can get the state back on the right track, but if there's instability around the world it will inevitably have an impact."
There are reasons why a governor would be hesitant to speak out about Syria: Foreign policy issues are not something they deal with regularly as state executives, and they do not have access to the same intelligence briefings provided to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
But that doesn’t mean they will ultimately be able to avoid it should they choose to seek the White House.
The federal government’s response to Syria in the coming weeks or months might be remembered as a defining foreign policy moment in Obama’s tenure, and those seeking to replace him will be required to describe in detail what they would have done in the same difficult situation.
For now, most in the Republican Party are betting against his judgment.