By Jeremy Herb and Carlo Munoz - 03/17/12 05:05 PM EDT
Many Republicans are hesitant to align with Sen. John McCain’s aggressive stances on Afghanistan and Syria.
Facing a public that’s become increasingly war weary after a decade of conflict, most Republicans have not backed McCain’s call for action in Syria.
Yet the Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said this week he supports the administration’s plans for Afghanistan, and he is hardly alone.
“On this issue, I’m not sure there is necessarily a clear consensus, and I think people are in different places,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the third-ranking Senate Republican.
“There are folks who are war weary. It’s been a long campaign, but obviously there are a lot of us who realize we’ve invested heavily in blood and treasure there.
“It’s a process a lot of our guys are going through in terms of trying to figure out what’s the right way forward,” Thune said.
McCain, the Republican nominee for president in 2008, has been one of President Obama’s harshest critics on foreign policy, blasting his planned drawdown of the surge forces from Afghanistan and for its inaction in Syria.
McCain’s call for action in foreign policy is nothing new, as he was a leading advocate of the surge in Iraq in 2007 and for intervening in Libya last year.
“He’s consistently out front pulling the GOP caucus along, and pushing them into taking more bolder military action,” Mackenzie Eaglen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said of McCain.
In the case of the surge in Iraq, Republicans followed McCain, the party’s standard-bearer in the 2008 election. But they haven’t been as quick to follow him on Libya last year, and on Syria and Afghanistan this year.
This extends to the presidential race, where Newt Gingrich this week questioned whether the mission in Afghanistan was “doable,” and Rick Santorum suggested faster withdrawal should be a possibility.
Eaglen said McCain’s call for staying on the current course in Afghanistan “is an increasingly solitary position in this town, not just among members but also among pundits and movement leaders.”
McCain said in an interview with The Hill that he does not see a rift in his party over Afghanistan and Syria. McCain said he doesn’t try to “twist arms” in his party, but will always articulate his views and do what he thinks is right.
“My record is pretty clear of the positions I’ve taken on these various conflicts, and I believe that America should continue to lead,” McCain said. “And it’s unfortunate in my view that we have a president that doesn’t.”
The massacre of Afghan civilians by a rogue U.S. soldier on Sunday, as well as the backlash from the burning of Qurans last month, have only increased calls for the U.S. to hasten its pullout from Afghanistan.
Obama said this week that the United States cannot “rush to the exits” in Afghanistan. He said the pullout of the final 23,000 surge troops would continue in the summer — which McCain is opposed to — and then the U.S. military would plan for the transfer of security control of Afghans by the end of 2014.
As reports emerged Tuesday that the administration was considering more withdrawals in Afghanistan in 2013, McCain blasted the Obama administration for continuing “to talk withdrawal,” saying it "discourages our friends and encourages our enemies.”
McCain downplayed McConnell’s comment this week that he supports the administration’s policy to move toward a transition “over the next couple of years.” He said the two have talked about concerns with early withdrawals from Afghanistan.
Republican senators interviewed by The Hill acknowledged there isn’t widespread support for the way forward on Afghanistan like there has been on foreign policy issues.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said that divisions exist within both parties on Afghanistan, which reflects just how complicated an exit strategy will be.
“The situation on the ground in Afghanistan is hard, and it seems like it gets more complicated every day,” Murkowski said. “The solutions are not ones where I think we’re all in accord.”
McCain’s closest allies on foreign policy are Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.), who have also warned against withdrawal before the Taliban is defeated in Afghanistan.
Graham slammed Gingrich this week for suggesting that the United States needs to leave Afghanistan.
Graham told The Hill that Republicans are going to listen to military commanders when it comes to Afghanistan, and will trust their judgment more than the White House.
On Syria, McCain has constantly been out front calling for arming the rebels and an international coalition launching air strikes, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has continued to attack opposition forces.
The Obama administration has opposed getting involved militarily, and Republicans have also been reluctant.
“We should be extremely skeptical about actions that could commit the United States to a military intervention,” said Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, at a hearing on Syria.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) warned that aligning with the opposition could be joining with groups like al-Qaeda.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told The Hill that most, if not all, Republican lawmakers abhorred the violent response of Assad's troops against Syrian rebels, but said, “we should be careful about stretching our military.”
McCain said that the response to Syria is like the initial response that lawmakers had to intervening in Libya last year, as well as Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. And he also scoffed at the notion that al Qaeda members were in the opposition in Syria.
“They're not fighting and dying and sacrificing their lives because they are Muslim extremists,” McCain said at last week’s hearing.
One of the biggest difficulties for a continued war effort is that public support has dissipated.
Several polls have shown that the public supports a quicker withdrawal in Afghanistan and oppose intervention in Syria, particular after the latest incidents in Afghanistan.
Lieberman suggested this week that polls can’t be part of the consideration for national security issues, but McCain blamed Obama for the lack of support.
“The public is very much opposed,” McCain said. “That’s because the president doesn’t lead.”