For months, when you asked Republicans what they wanted to do about ISIL, they would be quick to assure everyone that they didn't want to deploy large numbers of ground troops. Trainers, intelligence folks, coordinators, sure — but they're very clear that they aren't advocating a re-invasion of Iraq. Whether their reticence about ground troops has its roots in the politics of renewing a desperately unpopular war, or it's because they genuinely believe it would be a bad idea, they were unambiguous on that point.
What they did advocate was arming and training Syrian rebels. Likewise, it might be because Barack Obama wasn't doing that and therefore it was a way to be "tougher" than him, or it might be that they think it would make a real difference. But either way, that's the policy they advocated. And now that policy is one of the pillars of the anti-ISIL strategy Obama is laying out, so that's the part Republicans in Congress are getting ready to line up behind:
President Obama's plan to train and equip Syrian rebels in the fight against Islamic State militants appeared headed for quick passage on Capitol Hill this week, but congressional leaders have signaled that they will postpone a full debate on the use of military force until after the midterm elections.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have been working together on a cross-chamber strategy designed to keep their party ranks united and move swiftly toward passage of the measure.
But if you actually think about it, in some ways this is the riskiest part of Obama's strategy, no matter how necessary it might be. We'll be entering into an arena of multiple competing groups and constantly shifting alliances where the good guys may be awfully tough to find. Last week Agence France-Presse reported that elements of the Free Syrian Army had arranged a truce with ISIS; the FSA denies it vehemently, but it shows the unpredictability of the situation. That's not to mention the tricky dynamics of supporting one group that is fighting the brutal Assad regime in order to destroy another group that is fighting the brutal Assad regime all while trying to avoid directly fighting the brutal Assad regime that we're technically committed to seeing overthrown.
You may recall last year when John McCain went to meet with Syrian rebels, pronounced them to be brave freedom fighters, then found out that a couple of them may have been involved in kidnapping Shiite pilgrims. McCain now says that knowing who the real moderates among the rebels are is no problem, because "I've vetted a number of them because I know them."
There are any number of ways this whole engagement could go badly. But our relationship with Syrian rebels has to be at or near the top of the list of things that could turn into a disaster. So I guess we should compliment Republicans for being willing to take a stand in favor of a policy that presents such risks.