What the Media Doesn't Get About the Intraparty Splits on Syria

Chris Matthews hosts AOL Huffpo's Howard Fineman and Daily Beast's Peter Beinart. Screenshot from MSNBC.com
On his show on MSNBC yesterday, Chris Matthews held what amounted to a whining session with AOL Huffington Post's Howard Fineman and The Daily Beast's Peter Beinart (who kept referring to Secretary Kerry as "Senator Kerry") pouring over what a political disaster it would be for the president if the Republicans decided to let the Democrats come up with the votes needed for a strike on Syria. They spent a whole segment of the show trying to convince ... well, themselves, I guess... that the split on Syria within the Democratic party would be lethal and that Republicans could just embarrass the president. That's "what they do best", Matthews observed.

Chris Matthews and his guests are devastatingly, patently, ridiculously wrong. The political civil war within the United States isn't brewing inside the Democratic party; it is simmering among the Republicans. That is not to say that there isn't a split within the Democratic party on this issue, but our split is far different from the GOP's and it, all the drama aside, has pretty much zero risk of tearing the party apart. The Republican split does threaten to tear their side to pieces. Let me explain.

First, the Democratic side. The debate within the Democratic party on Syria is a clash of principles, but principles that Democrats universally hold. Our debate is about pacifism vs. humanitarian intervention. There is essentially no one in our party that disputes that what happened in Syria is a grotesque violation of human rights and that it deserves a response. There are people like me - call us liberal interventionists - who argue that the intelligence being what it is, and the United States having a unique role among nations, we must respond and take a stand, partially with force. There are others who believe that while what Syria did was a gross violation of human dignity, an armed intervention from the US alone will not help, or mire us into the Syrian civil conflict, or produce counterproductive results.

Pacifists and liberal interventionists (or humanitarian hawks) have co-existed in the modern Democratic party for a long time, primarily for two reasons: First: while in specific instances our judgment may be different, we hold the same principles and values. No Democrat wants to have to use military strikes in Syria, President Obama and Secretary Kerry included. And no Democrat thinks Assad should be allowed to escape this without consequence, including Barbara Lee.

Secondly, affirmative foreign or military policy has never been the connecting, common thread among modern Democrats. Modern Democrats have primarily come together for the cause of an effective, activist and progressive government on the domestic front's social and economic policies. Despite widespread opposition among Democrats against the Iraq war, our party awarded its 2004 nomination to a John Kerry who at the time reluctantly backed the war in Iraq. And in 2008 and 2012, we elected president a man famous for pointedly campaigning not against all wars, but against dumb wars.

The Republican party is very different in this regard. Despite their colossal foreign policy blunders over the years from Vietnam (though a Democrat started it, Nixon carried it on and made it his) to Iran Contra to Iraq, a hawkish, chest-thumping, gun-touting foreign policy has been a key cornerstone of the modern Republican party. If war weary Republicans existed prior to the election of the first black president, they were exceedingly well hidden, apart from few nuances like Ron Paul. But since Barack Obama's ascent into the Oval Office and the rise of the Tea Party, much of the Republican base (what's left of it) has made opposition to anything Obama does its mantra, making any military strikes Obama orders a sin, if only because Obama ordered it. The libertarians have taken full advantage of this phenomena to finally begin to push their foreign policy agenda.

The libertarian foreign policy agenda, and their opposition to intervention, however, isn't like the liberal opposition to intervention. Liberal pacifists aren't by and large isolationists who don't care about what happens to human beings elsewhere; they simply do not see the military as helpful. The right wing libertarian opposition to intervention stems from much the same ideology that caused Rand Paul to speak out against the terrible sin of government regulation telling private businesses that serve the public that they may not refuse service on the account of race. What people do with their own business is their business, say the libertarians, and if Muslims want to kill each other with gas, that's their business too.

But the Republican establishment, in this regard, is not isolationist. They may not care about Muslims killing each other either, but they care about American military dominance, the defense industry, and Dick Cheney's famous 1-percent doctrine. They are true believers that American power is primarily and most effectively projected through military strength, and without active projections of military strength, American power will wane. The clash between libertarian isolationists and conservative hawks isn't one of judgment in a given situation, it's a dramatic split in worldview. And the gulf doesn't exist on the subject of Syria alone, as evidenced by frequent wars of words between Sens. McCain and Paul.

Now the battle within the Republican party isn't just about Syria but about the foreign policy soul of the Republican party. The Paul libertarians, with their anti-Obama-on-everything Tea Party wingbat friends are in a war with the traditional foreign policy and defense establishment of the Republican party. For the establishment, this is about much more than embarrassing the president (as much as they would love to). For them, it is about their very identity as a party. They may not want Obama to win, but he already did, twice, and they want to take their party's foreign policy agenda back from the libertarians in an even worse way than they want to beat Obama. For the Tea Party libertarians, it is also a matter of identity - both on principle and on the anti-Obama front.

And so, in reality, the internal Republican fight about Syria is really an identity crisis for the party, whereas for the Democratic party, it may be difficult, but it is only about what to do in Syria. But look, I get it. I get it that TV pundits can't be bothered to think beyond their little boxes of stale debate. I get that figuring out the depth of the Republican civil war over Syria is way below Chris Matthews' paygrade (and Howard Fineman's and Peter Beinart's). But perhaps our vaunted media would do well to try to go beneath the surface, especially on a show where the host boasts that politics is "what I do."