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The Future Of Syria's President Is The Latest Issue To Divide The GOP

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next discussion has a theme sentence - a sentence about the U.S. approach to Syria. It's spoken here by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS BROADCAST)

REX TILLERSON: It's important that we keep our priorities straight.

INSKEEP: He spoke of priorities on CBS after the Trump administration raised questions about what its priorities are. The administration first said its priority in Syria was fighting ISIS, not fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and then bombed Assad's military in response to a chemical attack and said Assad must go. So with all that in mind, let's hear more of Tillerson's fuller statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS BROADCAST)

TILLERSON: It's important that we keep our priorities straight. And we believe that the first priority is the defeat of ISIS - that by defeating ISIS and removing their caliphate from their control, we have now eliminated at least, or minimized, a particular threat, not just to the United States, but to the whole stability in the region.

INSKEEP: OK, so ISIS is the priority there. And he says Syria's future as well as Assad's future can be discussed after the ISIS threat has been, quote, "reduced or eliminated." So he said all that. But he's also said this today in a speech in Italy commemorating a massacre by Nazis in 1944. Tillerson said, quote, "we rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world." Wow. Jonah Goldberg with the National Review is going to help us make sense of this. He's in our studios once again. Jonah, good morning.

JONAH GOLDBERG: It's great to be here.

INSKEEP: OK, so does the administration have its priorities straight?

GOLDBERG: Remains to be seen. My colleague and friend Charles Krauthammer said the other night on Fox that the message here wasn't just that there's a new sheriff in town but that there is a sheriff in town.

INSKEEP: OK.

GOLDBERG: The fact that the United States is going to assert itself in ways that the Obama administration did not. To extend that metaphor just a tiny bit, I think what we saw with the Syria bombing was the equivalent of a sheriff during a bar fight firing one shot into the air. Now what happens?

INSKEEP: Meaning that you haven't actually - you haven't drastically changed the situation...

GOLDBERG: We've got everyone...

INSKEEP: ...But you've made an announcement.

GOLDBERG: We have everyone's attention. Everyone has stopped and turned and said, OK, now what? And no one really seems to know. And it really depends on what flows from this. Was this a one-off? This was very much sort of a pinprick. Was it just simply about the use of chemical weapons? Was this part of some new strategy to actually get rid of Assad? There were some sounds that - over the weekend, that made it seem like that's what they want to do.

INSKEEP: Yeah, Nikki Haley made a statement to that effect...

GOLDBERG: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...The U.N. ambassador.

GOLDBERG: Or was this really just an emotional reaction to some horrific footage that came out of Syria from some children?

INSKEEP: There are a number of Republicans in Congress taking this opportunity to try to put some limits on what they think the policy ought to be. And some of the statements, if you read them carefully, essentially say yes, we support this strike retaliating for the use of chemical weapons. But we're not so eager to go much further or get that much more involved in Syria's civil war.

GOLDBERG: Yeah. No, I think that's right. There's a - there's definitely a major split on the right these days that can be traced all the way back to, at the very minimum, the Iraq War. There are some people, including some of my colleagues at National Review, that basically see Syria as just a hot mess. It's basically like the Spanish Civil War, where you had two bad guys fighting each other. There's - there's no one really to support. The idea of good rebels are - is just sort of a fantasy.

And the best thing to do is just to stay out of it. And there are people who were very strong supporters of Donald Trump who thought that that was Donald Trump's position. And meanwhile, we have people like my friend Bill Kristol, and we have Lindsey Graham and John McCain who are very excited about this about-face.

INSKEEP: People who were really against Trump partly because of his previous policy.

GOLDBERG: Yeah. So it's an amazing thing. Everyone has sort of stopped and recalibrated after this first shot. And everyone is sort of waiting to see what it means.

INSKEEP: Your colleague Andrew McCarthy wrote the other day, when it came to foreign policy, I was worried that the 2016 election would be a case of Hillary Clinton delivering the third Obama term. Instead, he writes, we have Trump giving us the third Obama term.

GOLDBERG: Yeah. And I know where Andy is coming from on this. Andy very much thinks that this is not - it's - he has nothing but sympathy for the horrors that are going on in Syria. But this is - there's just no good option for us there. And it's between two factions that are both hostile to our interests.

INSKEEP: Let's bring a democratic voice into this conversation - Senator Tim Kaine. He was on the program on Friday. He said he supports the strike responding to the chemical weapons. But he says the president should have gotten authorization from Congress. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TIM KAINE: I'm glad that the United States is finally showing some assertiveness against the brutality of Bashar al-Assad. I voted to use military action against Syria in 2013, when they used chemical weapons against civilians. But I am very critical of President Trump for taking this action without coming to Congress first.

INSKEEP: You know, this is a moment when you hear people in both parties trying to emphasize that Congress has really given up a lot of power to many presidents over the years, and they'd like some of it back. How serious are lawmakers about getting power back from the executive?

GOLDBERG: It's hard to say. I mean, there were - what? - about a hundred Republicans who signed some letter to Barack Obama saying you have to get authorization for Syria who are out there cheering Donald Trump for bombing Syria without getting authorization.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

GOLDBERG: I think this is one of these things that cuts across both party lines as well. Again, I think because this was this one-off or this shot in the air, it remains to be seen. I do think that if President Trump wants to do a sustained military action against Syria, you're going to see voices like Rand Paul's and Mike Lee's and others get much louder in saying no, you must get authorization for this. And I think, technically, he really does need to get authorization for this.

INSKEEP: Do you think that Congress is in any mood or any position that they would actually provide clear authorization one way or the other?

GOLDBERG: I don't - I don't see it. I don't see a lot of Democrats rallying to give Donald Trump authorization to go to war.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDBERG: And I don't see Republicans wanting to deal with that.

INSKEEP: Here's some more power.

GOLDBERG: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Yes, not eager to do that. And Republicans, you think, in the end would not...

GOLDBERG: I don't think they have a huge appetite for it. Again, it depends what Trump wants to do.

INSKEEP: OK. Jonah, thanks for coming by, as always.

GOLDBERG: It's great to be here.

INSKEEP: That's Jonah Goldberg of the National Review and also of the Los Angeles Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.