Senate Republicans Rebuke President On Syria And Afghanistan Policy

Jan 31, 2019
Originally published on January 31, 2019 8:33 pm

Republicans have had no shortage of foreign policy disagreements with President Trump, whose presidential campaign ran diametrically opposed to many central tenets of traditional GOP stances on international affairs.

The GOP-controlled Senate voted again to go on the record with more pushback on foreign policy — this time on Syria.

Led by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Senate advanced an amendment 68-23 to a broader Mideast policy measure that warned against a "precipitous withdrawal" from the Middle Eastern nation. The measure was attached to a broader Mideast policy bill that the Senate is still debating.

The president unexpectedly tweeted in December that the United States was withdrawing its approximately 2,000 troops from Syria, against the advice of the Pentagon.

"We have won against ISIS, we have beaten them, and we have beaten them badly," the president said in December via a video message on his preferred medium, Twitter. "And now it's time for our troops to come back home."

That sudden declaration of a withdrawal from Syria — and Trump's claim of victory over ISIS — was news to American diplomats, military officers and lawmakers, who raised concerns that ISIS had not yet been defeated and that the withdrawal would leave U.S. allies in the lurch.

Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis both resigned shortly following Trump's announcement, protesting the sudden change in policy.

"My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held," Mattis wrote in his December resignation letter to the president. "You have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects."

With Thursday's vote, now it was the Senate's turn to put its rebuke on the record.

McConnell's resolution urges the Trump administration to conduct a thorough review of its strategy regarding Syria, including an assessment of the risks of withdrawal, and calls on the administration to certify the enduring defeat of al-Qaida and ISIS before any significant withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria or Afghanistan.

"ISIS and al-Qaida have yet to be defeated. And American national security interests require continued commitment to our missions," McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Republican senators have been put in the uncomfortable position of chiding the president while simultaneously appearing to support him. It is a reflection of both Trump's unorthodox beliefs and his enduring popularity with the Republican base they both share.

Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that what the president had declared was just a "shorter" version of what the Senate was now passing.

Asked by NPR whether the resolution was a rebuke of the president, Risch said, "No, it isn't, because it's not."

"This is just a way of saying that we in the Congress ... the military ... and the president agree," Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told NPR. "It's just another way of emphasizing something that people just don't understand."

The vote on Syria is not the only example of Republican dissent regarding the administration's policies. GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado are helping to lead an effort in both chambers on Capitol Hill to prevent the president from aiding the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.

There is bipartisan support for legislation that would direct the president to remove U.S. armed forces from the conflict in Yemen — the Senate voted 56-41 back in December to end American military support to the Saudi-led coalition.

Lee told NPR that some Republicans were brought on board "because of the separation-of-powers issue. Others were perhaps ... prompted a little bit more by — when they saw what happened with Mr. Khashoggi, it caused them to lose a little bit of confidence in the fact that we're assisting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

Thursday's vote is just the latest example of Republicans trying to corral a president whose instincts fall far outside what a more establishment GOP president would have preferred.

On issues like NATO, on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, on Russia sanctions, on North Korea, Republican lawmakers have repeatedly stood up to the president on his national security policy.

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Let's stick with the troops for a moment, specifically those serving in Syria and Afghanistan. Back in December, President Trump took many people by surprise when he said he would withdraw troops from Syria, arguing that the mission to defeat ISIS was already complete. Today, Senate Republicans sharply rebuked him for that. Enough Republicans sided with Democrats to advance a resolution that opposes the immediate withdrawal of soldiers in Syria and Afghanistan. The move was led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.


MITCH MCCONNELL: ISIS and al-Qaida have yet to be defeated, and American national security interests require continued commitment to our mission.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Tim Mak joins us now from Capitol Hill. Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: This is a resolution. It doesn't actually reverse the president's policy. So what does it accomplish?

MAK: You're right. The resolution can't force a change in President Trump's policy regarding Syria or Afghanistan, but 43 Republicans out of 53 total in the Senate voted to rebuke him on his Syria policy today. It signals to the president that many members of his own party are not with him when it comes to a swift withdrawal and disagree with his belief that ISIS has been defeated. Here's what Trump said in a video message he posted on Twitter back in December.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have won against ISIS. We've beaten them, and we've beaten them badly. We've taken back the land, and now it's time for our troops to come back home.

MAK: The unexpected announcement led to the resignation of the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. And many in Trump's own administration have said that ISIS isn't defeated, that there are still thousands of ISIS fighters in the area, and they pose a risk to regional stability.

So the president can do a lot of things on foreign policy unilaterally, but ultimately on major changes relating to funding, relating to policy, he needs to maintain a coalition of support in Congress. And Congress is telling him quite strongly today he doesn't have their support on a quick withdrawal from Syria or Afghanistan.

SHAPIRO: How significant is it that the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, led this effort?

MAK: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks for a large group of hawkish Republicans who have a standing disagreement with the president's foreign policy instincts. Here's Senator McConnell on the Senate floor today.


MCCONNELL: The United States is engaged in Syria and Afghanistan for one simple reason - because our enemies are engaged there. Real dangers to us and to our allies still remain in both these nations, so we must continue to confront them.

MAK: McConnell is most often an ally of President Trump's, but on this issue, he felt strongly enough to lay down a marker on where he and the vast majority of senators stand. And it's kind of becoming a recurring theme on issues like NATO, on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, on Russia sanctions. Republican lawmakers have repeatedly stood up to the president on his national security instincts. It really does seem like foreign policy is the one major area where Republicans aren't afraid to break with the president, unlike issues like health care or taxes or immigration.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Are Republicans on the Hill signaling that they are more willing to openly break with the president on other matters of foreign policy?

MAK: You know, one issue to watch and one issue I'm watching is going to be how Congress reacts to U.S. support for the Saudis in the ongoing war in Yemen. Republicans like Senator Mike Lee and Congressman Ken Buck - they've joined with progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders to invoke the War Powers Act to stop U.S. military assistance from being provided to the Saudis. Back in December, the Senate voted to do just this, but the House didn't take it up. There's a good chance that the new House and Senate will address this issue and try to force the president's hand, leading to a confrontation regarding U.S. policy in Yemen later this year.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Tim Mak speaking with us from the Capitol. Thanks, Tim.

MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.