Republicans saddle their warhorses

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was testifying Tuesday about the need for military action in Syria and Iraq when Ann Wright, an anti-war demonstrator in the audience, rose and began shouting: “No more war! No more war!”

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, hammered the gavel. “You’re acting very war-like yourself,” he told Wright.

Must be going around.

With extraordinary speed, the nation and its leaders have rallied behind war to defeat the Islamic State terrorist group. President Obama still holds to a “no boots on the ground” pledge, but to listen to recent pronouncements in the House and Senate, it would appear that many Republicans are clamoring for a new ground war in the Middle East — a position even hawks hesitated to take a few weeks ago.

Consider one Republican member of the Senate panel, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who three months ago said: “I don’t think we need boots on the ground. I don’t think that is an option worth consideration.” After Obama announced a no-boots-on-the-ground plan last week that sounded much like what Graham was asking for, Graham revised his view. “This idea we’ll never have any boots on the ground to defeat them in Syria is fantasy,” he said Sunday on TV.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Graham practically pleaded with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to endorse the use of U.S. ground troops against the Islamic State. “Do you agree that somebody’s got to go in on the ground?” he asked. “Can you envision a coalition of Arab states that have the capabilities … without substantial U.S. military support?” Finally, the senator challenged the general: “If you think they can do it without us being on the ground, just say yes.”

“Yes,” said Dempsey.

This was evidently not the answer sought by Graham, who then asked if Dempsey would recommend U.S. ground troops in Syria “if nobody else will help us.” Dempsey, not quite as categorical as Obama, pledged that if circumstances change to merit U.S. ground forces, he’ll recommend that.

The sudden desire for a ground war is a bit suspect, both because many Republicans adopted this view only after Obama came around to their previous view and because many Republicans oppose even the modest funding Obama has requested to train Syrian fighters.

It may be that Republicans embraced the boots-on-the-ground position because Obama rejected it. Whatever the cause, the militancy is spreading — even though polls indicate that while Americans favor military action against the Islamic State, they aren’t keen on ground troops.

House Speaker John Boehner, asked about Obama’s no-boots vow, replied: “I would never tell the enemy what I was willing to do, or unwilling to do.”

Rep. John Fleming, R-La., was more blunt. He told The Associated Press that, rather than depending on “undependable” foreigners, he favors “all-out-war” waged by American forces.

As the House kicked off its debate Tuesday on training Syrian rebels, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., declared that Obama “was far too quick to rule out options and tools that he in fact may need later.”

Said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.: “We have made this decision not to have ground troops. We do not need another half-pregnant war in the Middle East. If it’s important enough to fight, it’s important enough to win.”

The little bit of war-weariness that was voiced on the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday came from Democrats, particularly Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

The Republicans were almost unanimous in wanting a broader war than Obama outlined. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma called it “foolhardy” for Obama to rule out ground troops. “There was a collective sigh of relief at ISIS [Islamic State] headquarters in Syria when they heard him say that,” Inhofe alleged.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said she didn’t see how the air strikes could work “without the assistance of our trained special operators on the ground.”

Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said he didn’t think “five thousand trained in a year” would be sufficient. “I want us to win.”

And Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama offered his opinion that Iraqi troops would be “more emboldened and encouraged” if they had U.S. troops embedded with them.

Dempsey suggested that Jordanian or Emirati forces might do that job.

“Well, if we all had horses, we’d take a ride,” snapped Sessions. “We don’t have that.”

Ah, but we do. The Republican Party has quickly assembled a veritable cavalry brigade of warhorses.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.

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