Congress did not vote on attacking Syria, but everyone knows the Obama administration would have lost. The last whip count I obtained, on the Friday before Russia brokered a deal, showed 229 House members announced against or leaning against, 25 announced for or leaning for. In the Senate, the majority leader postponed a vote because he did not have a majority.
This marks a sea change of the first magnitude. The opposition to another war in the Mideast was led not by liberal Democrats, but by Republicans. The permanent war party headed by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham was left turning slowly in the wind. This is all the more remarkable because the feared Israeli lobby, AIPAC, was in favor. Republicans had to defy Israel, the neo-cons, and the Pentagon (a friend told me he heard a three-star Army general say a week before the deal, “I really hope this Syria operation is a go because it would help us defend our budget.”), and they did.
What suddenly put some spine into all the Republican jellyfish? The folks back home. Luckily, the run-up to war coincided with a Congressional recess, so Member of Congress were home listening to their constituents. Overwhelmingly, the people said “no more stupid wars in the Middle East that kill our kids for nothing.” Friends on the Hill told me calls and emails were very heavy and ran 96-98% “no.” Some offices received not a single call or message asking for another war.
This is a sea change because it is a major change in outlook by the Republicans’ base. The first rule of politics is “Don’t lose your base.” If you do, you’re done. The base, especially out here in the Heartland, overwhelmingly said “no.” Republican Members of Congress dared not ignore that.
Not only did the permanent war party lose its base, so did the Pentagon. If we are not going to fight more unnecessary overseas wars, why do we need the world’s most expensive military? Were our armed forces sized only to defend us, the defense budget could easily be cut by at least half.
This fact too is now on the radar screen of many Republican Members of Congress. Rightly, they see endless deficits and rising debt as more of a threat to the country’s future than any potential overseas opponent. They know we cannot balance the budget, begin to reduce the debt, not raise taxes and still pour around a trillion dollars a year into the national defense budget function (that’s Budget Committee language for all national security spending).
One big question remains: Will the public’s aversion to an attack on Syria carry over to a possible attack on Iran or war with China? Here in the Heartland, I think it will. We’ve seen too many kids come home in a box or a wheelchair, watched too many trillions (not billions) poured into the sand.
A period of peace and retrenchment could open the door to the military reform our armed services urgently require. We have a couple million good guys trapped in terrible systems, systems that drain away all thought about war, all initiative and moral courage, and reward only the institutional corruption that puts defense budgets above defending the country. Peace could give us a chance to drive the moneychangers out of the temple of Mars.