Who Is Making the Case For and Against Action in Syria?

Two different organizations are circulating information on Capitol Hill pertaining to the situation in Syria. The handouts are interesting, though for different reasons.

FreedomWorks, a grassroots organization credited with helping to get the Tea Party movement off the ground, issued a letter last Friday encouraging FreedomWorks’ supporters to contact their members of Congress and “urge them to vote NO on the upcoming Syrian war resolution.” 

In the letter, FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe cites the anticipated costs of the operations, but also warns about the “unintended consequences” that could cost far more. While FreedomWorks has typically steered clear of foreign policy issues, the letter explains why they have chosen to get involved this time, by linking back to the organization’s core issues: federal spending, burdensome regulations, and crushing debt. Even if the war in Syria doesn’t end up costing nearly as much as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, time spent debating our involvement in yet another Middle Eastern civil war distracts attention from more urgent challenges here at home.  

I had a chance to speak with Kibbe yesterday. The debate in Washington surrounding intervention in Syria, Kibbe explained, reminded him a lot of the late summer in 2008, when a bipartisan coalition in Washington, led by Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner, made the case for bailing out the nation’s banks. The leaders called for immediate action to rescue the nation from the economic precipice, but the public wasn’t buying it. Pelosi and Boehner, along with President Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson, eventually secured passage of TARP, but it generated even more opposition out in the hinterland to the disconnected class here in Washington.

Party leaders have even less power today, Kibbe said. “It is harder to buy votes” because the government is drowning in red ink, and the vote-buying to secure passage of ObamaCare generated a “backlash” that drove out unpopular incumbents. Fear of that same backlash is deterring a few holdovers from that Congress from trading favors in return for casting an unpopular vote for an unnecessary war.

“A few years ago,” Kibbe told me, “I never would have dreamed we could have stopped” a president’s call for military action. But the debate over intervention in Syria, he went on to say, “touches on a lot of other things” that has people upset at Washington today.

Not everyone is pleased, however, with Congress’s uncharacteristic deference to public sentiment. Other organizations are sending around information on Capitol Hill making the case for war, and hoping that Congress will ignore the people back home.

For example, the Foreign Policy Initiative’s “Fact Sheet for Congressional Debate on Syria,” provides “key background” on the conflict, quoting Obama administration officials and assuring readers that the Syrian opposition is populated by “moderate and respected” leaders who are committed “to a tolerant and inclusive vision of Syria.”

The fact sheet excerpts liberally from a single Wall Street Journal op-ed by Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. O’Bagy’s op-ed also served as a point of reference for Secretary of State John Kerry’s congressional testimony. The advocates for war want the public to believe that military strikes will be narrow and targeted, but they hope that U.S. intervention will tip the scales to the Syrian opposition without drawing the United States more deeply into the conflict. Building support for the opposition is key to making the case for war stick.

That is why O’Bagy is also working on behalf of the Syria Emergency Task Force (SETF), an organization that, according to its website, advocates “for greater U.S. action in Syria.” The group boasts that its D.C. team has met “with over two-thirds of the House and ninety percent of the Senate over the past year.” O’Bagy is listed on SETF’s website as the “political director.”

O’Bagy’s moonlighting for SETF caught the attention of publications on both the left and right. The Wall Street Journal saw fit to issue a clarification appended to O’Bagy’s op-ed, belatedly revealing her work for an advocacy organization. FPI does not mention O’Bagy’s affiliation with the SETF in the literature that it is handing out on Capitol Hill. For her part, O’Bagy doesn’t see a conflict of interest, and states on her ISW bio page that she does not lobby on behalf of SETF. She explained to the Daily Caller that she was working for the Syrian people

In the run-up to the war in Iraq, organizations like the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq and the Project for a New American Century peddled claims about the heroic Iraqi opposition that would rise up after Saddam Hussein’s ouster, welcome American troops with open arms, and establish a thriving liberal democracy in the heart of the Middle East. They dismissed expert opinion suggesting that the collapse of the Baathist regime would unleash a horrific civil war, and they cast aside evidence that the individuals likely to emerge victorious from such a fight would be skeptical of Western-style democracy and likely hostile to the United States. They said that the war would be over quickly, and that our troops would come home soon. They trotted friendly, smiling Iraqis around Washington and introduced them to members of Congress. These were the people, they said, who represented the true spirit of the Iraqi people. Now we know the rest of the story, but that hasn’t stopped the advocates for this war from telling a similar one again. 

The public can be forgiven for overwhelmingly opposing intervention in Syria, given what they have learned (but apparently many here in Washington have not) about supposedly limited military operations to punish dictators. In the case of war with Syria, FreedomWorks is following public sentiment, while the Foreign Policy Initiative is trying to lead Washington away from it.