The prospect of a U.S. military strike on Syria is putting pressure on political fault lines, and the tremors are being felt in South Carolina.
National security hawks like U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham see a lawless world in need of American leadership and, when the cause is just, its soldiers and bombs.
The Republican Party’s emergent libertarian wing, however, represented most prominently at the moment by Sen. Rand Paul, a possible presidential candidate, emphasizes the cost of foreign wars and their effect on U.S. public relations abroad.
The differences are playing out in South Carolina as Graham fights for a third term against three other Republicans and a Democrat who want his job and as White House hopefuls visit the state ahead of its first-in-the-South presidential primary in 2016.
On Monday, Paul and two other possible GOP presidential candidates — Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana — were asked about Syria during press conferences in Greenville and Anderson.
Perry, appearing at the Bi-Lo Center to endorse Gov. Nikki Haley’s re-election, reminded reporters that he called for a no-fly zone over Syria when he ran for president in 2012 — a policy that might have “saved tens of thousands of lives” if it had been heeded.
Jindal, also at the Bi-Lo Center to back Haley, didn’t say exactly what he would do in response to a chemical weapons attack against civilians in Syria that reportedly killed hundreds, including women and children.
Jindal, however, noted that America’s options included coordinating an attack with its allies or with NATO, establishing a no-fly zone or arming the Syrian opposition.
In Anderson later that same day, Paul spoke skeptically about a U.S. strike.
When a reporter asked about the issue during a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, the Kentucky senator expressed reservations about arming Islamic rebels allied with al Qaida so they could fight Christians backing Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
In a statement released later from Washington, Paul said the Syrian civil war “has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring in to power people friendly to the United States.”
Experts said a bias against foreign wars isn’t a new theme among conservative Republicans.
Ohio Sen. Robert Taft championed a “non-interventionist” foreign policy during the 1950s, for example.
In the decades after that, however, Republicans were more often characterized by a willingness to fight overseas in order to stop the spread of communism.
While campaigning against Jimmy Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan, the party’s modern architect, called the Vietnam War a “noble cause.”
Brent Nelsen, a professor of political science at Furman University who’s been active in Republican politics, said “the left was always opposed to intervention” in the 1960s and 1970s “and the right was always in favor of it.”
“Now in some ways, the libertarian right, the tea party right, is against (intervention), which lines up with the far left,” Nelsen said.
The United States “is the only international power that can strike a blow against Syria,” he said, and Graham “sees that as our job. The libertarians don’t see that as our job. They don’t see the United States having that kind of role in the world.”
Mark Tompkins, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, said the division “reflects fundamentally different values about our role in the world.”
“Folks like Sen. Graham, who favor a more energetic policy toward the rest of the world, want us to use our power to make the world a better place,” he said.
“Others, often associated with those who want a smaller government and a smaller government role in society, want us to be far more cautious about our involvement in the business of other people.”
Dave Woodard, a Republican professor of political science at Clemson University, said today’s GOP is divided between a conservative wing that believes in “American exceptionalism” and involvement and a libertarian wing that wants to “bring the troops home.”
“I think the divisions can be really deep, and we are in trouble as a party if they start fighting,” he said.
Graham has called for a limited strike against Syria, but three Republicans and one Democrat challenging him for re-election disagree.
GOP challengers Richard Cash, Lee Bright and Nancy Mace all said it would be a mistake for the United States to get involved, as did Democrat Jay Stamper.
Cash, a Powdersville businessman, said he doesn’t think President Barack Obama or Graham have made a compelling case that an attack on Syria is in the U.S. national interest.
Obama “feels compelled to do something because he drew a red line and it’s been crossed and now his credibility has been called into question,” Cash said. “I don’t know that all adds up to strategic coherence. It’s just something I think he feels trapped into doing.”
Bright, a state senator from Roebuck, said any U.S. involvement would likely turn into another protracted engagement, “and the best thing we can do is worry about our own country and what’s happening here and our rights and liberties that are under assault daily.”
Mace, a public affairs consultant from Charleston and self-described “Army brat,” said the U.S. has few good options.
“Who are we supposed to side with in Syria? Assad’s murderous regime or al Qaida?” she said.
Stamper, a nonprofit executive from Columbia, said cornering Assad “would make it more likely — not less — that he would resort to using chemical weapons out of desperation.”
For his part, Graham said in a recent statement that the time had come for “decisive actions.”
“Using stand-off weapons, without boots on the ground, and at minimal risk to our men and women in uniform, we can significantly degrade Assad’s air power and ballistic missile capabilities and help to establish and defend safe areas on the ground,” South Carolina’s senior senator said.
He also called for a large-scale effort to train and equip “moderate, vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.”
“It is not in our national security interest for this conflict to grind on, as some suggest,” Graham said. ”To the contrary, as we have clearly seen, the longer the conflict in Syria goes on, the worse and worse it gets and the more it spreads throughout the region.”
South Carolina’s other senator, Republican Tim Scott, said the main question is what the U.S. national interest in Syria is and how to respond in a manner consistent with that.
“I’m not quite sure that we have clarified what that position is,” Scott said.
On Thursday, the two Republicans who represent Greenville County in the U.S. House — Duncan and Trey Gowdy — both expressed opposition to intervening in Syria, though Gowdy said he doesn’t have enough information.
Gowdy said in Greer that he’s not willing to vote in favor of a U.S. strike for the sole reason that Assad used chemical weapons, if the evidence shows that indeed happened.
“I am going to require that the proof be made to me that this is worth the lives of our young people and that case has not been made,” he said.
Duncan said in a statement that he does “not believe it is in the American people’s interest to intervene in Syria right now. This is a Syrian civil war that has been transpiring for nearly 30 months and questions remain about which side we would be assisting.”