August 30, 2013— -- Positions on military action and going to war are critical during presidential primaries and general elections. Where potential 2016 candidates stand on intervention in Syria now could very well come up on the campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire.
These moments have a way of coming back to haunt presidential candidates and they will be made to answer for their positions just as then Sen. Barack Obama's opposition to the war in Iraq helped him in his primary against Hillary Clinton.
If you're in the opposition party, standing apart from the administration is key. Here's where possible 2016ers stand on Syria.
This story has been updated since the president announced he would seek congressional approval for a military strike in Syria.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a reliably libertarian voice, has been one of the most vocal. On Sunday, after the president's announcement that he would seek congressional approval before any military intervention, Paul said while he is "proud of the president" for "coming to Congress in a constitutional manner and asking for our authorization," he thinks it's a "mistake to get involved in the Syrian civil war."
"His policy was that no president should unilaterally go to war without congressional authority. And I'm proud that he's sticking by it," Paul said on NBC's Meet the Press referring to Obama, adding if Congress does not vote for authorization "we should not be involved in the Syrian war. And I think it's at least 50/50 whether the House will vote down involvement in the Syrian war."
"I think it's pretty apparent there was a chemical attack," Paul said. "But we now have to ask are we going to go after chemical weapons with our bombing? Everything I read says that we're unlikely to bomb chemical sites because of the potential for civilian damage and civilian loss of life…If we get involved people say, well 100,000 people have died, we must act. Well our weapons get involved and we get involved, do you think more people will die or less people? I think the war may escalate out of control. And then we have to ask ourselves who is on America's side over there? If the rebels win, will they be American allies?"
David Gregory mentioned Paul's potential 2016 candidacy and asked how it would look if the president asks for congressional authority and they vote no.
"I think it would show that he made a grave mistake when he drew a red line," Paul said. "I think a president should be very careful about setting red lines he's not going to keep. But then again, when you set a red line that was not a good idea in the beginning...and now you're going to adhere to it or try to show your machismo, I think then you're trying to save face and really adding bad policy to bad policy."
On Saturday, Paul said he was "encouraged" by the decision of the president to "fulfill his constitutional obligation to seek authorization for any potential military action in Syria."
"This is the most important decision any president or any senator must make, and it deserves vigorous debate," Paul said in a statement.
Last week, he had consistently stressed that "Congress declares war, not the president."
Start with the Constitution, he said in an interview with former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee on his radio show. "We have a separation of powers. The constitution says when we go to war Congress declares war, the president executes the war so congress doesn't get involved in the details of the war, but congress does have a very important role in whether we go to war or not."
On Saturday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., released a statement saying Congress should not wait until the August recess is over to take action.
"I agree with the decision to seek Congressional approval before taking military action in Syria," Rubio said. "And I believe Congress should return to Washington immediately and begin to debate this issue. The United States should only engage militarily when it is pursuing a clear and attainable national security goal. Military action taken simply to send a message or save face does not meet that standard."
Rubio has been less vocal than other lawmakers, only releasing his first comments last Wednesday following the August 21st attack, but he has been outspoken about the Syrian conflict for the past two years.
In his statement he noted the nation has "significant national interests at stake in the conflict in Syria" and accused the president of "lead(ing) from behind" and stressing that the president must clearly lay out to Congress and the American people U.S. interests and goals in military action.
Over two years ago, he said, he urged the U.S. to "identify non-jihadist groups in Syria and help train and equip them so that they could not only topple Assad, but also be the best organized, trained and armed group on the ground in a post-Assad Syria."
But failure to act means that the "the best funded and armed groups in Syria today are Assad's Iranian-backed killers, Hezbollah fighters aligned with Assad, and rebels with links to al Qaeda.... we are now left with no good options."
"Military action, taken simply to save face, is not a wise use of force," Rubio said. "My advice is to either lay out a comprehensive plan using all of the tools at our disposal that stands a reasonable chance of allowing the moderate opposition to remove Assad and replace him with a stable secular government. Or, at this point, simply focus our resources on helping our allies in the region protect themselves from the threat they and we will increasingly face from an unstable Syria."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, has been very critical of the president on the issue of Syria, but when speaking at the Americans for Prosperity Foundation conference in Orlando Saturday just minutes after the president's announcement, he said he was "pleased" to tell the crowd of Obama's decision.
"That's the way it's supposed to work," Cruz told the crowd. "The constitution gives Congress the power to declare war and I am very, very glad that the president listened to bipartisan calls to come before Congress and to come before the American people and make the case not based on international norms, not based on international law, but based on the only proper criteria for potential military action which is the vital national security interest of the United States of America. On Syria the president and Republicans and Democrats in Congress need to listen to the people."
He had some harsh words for the president this week in an interview with Rush Limbaugh, calling the Obama presidency "imperial" and "lawless."
He linked the situation in Syria to the president's health care plan: "These two issues, you look at Syria, you look at Obamacare. They're tied together ... by an arrogance of this administration, that they don't believe they're accountable to the American people, and they are going to jam their agenda down the throats of the American people," Cruz said.
At the president's announcement Saturday, Joe Biden, who will be visiting Iowa next month, stood behind Obama. As the vice president, he is tied to the administration's position. Last week he said there is "no doubt" that Bashar al-Assad's regime is responsible for the chemical weapons attack earlier this month on Syrian civilians.
"There is no doubt that an essential international norm has been violated — violated. Chemical weapons have been used," the vice president told the American Legion National Convention in Houston on Wednesday. "And there is no doubt who is responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria: the Syrian regime."
"For we know that the Syrian regime are the only ones who have the weapons — have used chemical weapons multiple times in the past, have the means of delivering those weapons, have been determined to wipe out exactly the places that were attacked by chemical weapons," he continued. "And instead of allowing U.N. inspectors immediate access, the government has repeatedly shelled the sites of the attack and blocked the investigation for five days."
There has still been no comment from Hillary Clinton on whether she agrees with military intervention in Syria after the chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs last month. She also has not weighed in on the president's decision, but she discussed the conflict in Syria often as secretary of state including in her last interview in that position with ABC News' Cynthia McFadden in January. McFadden asked Clinton what it would take for "America to intervene."
Clinton answered that while she thinks "we have been very actively involved," there needed to be a "credible opposition coalition," saying, "You cannot even attempt a political solution if you don't have a recognized force to counter the Assad regime."
Clinton told McFadden that the "use of chemical weapons, as President Obama said, is a red line, but I think if you look at the administration's effort on the political front, on the U.N. front where we still believe we need to get Security Council action on the humanitarian front, the president just announced a hundred million more on the humanitarian front."
When asked if the U.S. would "permit" Assad to use chemical weapons, Clinton answered, "No, no and President Obama has been very clear about that."
However, she did add, "It is very hard to train and equip opposition fighters. It is very hard to know who is going to emerge from this and making the wrong bet could have very severe consequences. So there are certain positions and actions we've taken and we've also laid down the red line on chemical weapons because that could have far-reaching effects beyond even the street-to-street fighting that is so terrible to watch and it could also affect other countries."
The day before Clinton left the State Department in January she told reporters the conflict "is distressing on all fronts."
"I think I've done what was possible to do over the last two years in trying to create or help stand up an opposition that was credible and could be an interlocutor in any kind of political negotiation," Clinton said.
In February it was revealed that the president rebuffed a plan last summer by Clinton, then CIA Director David Petraeus and then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to arm the Syrian rebels.
As a presidential candidate in 2012, Rick Santorum was very vocal about his foreign policy positions, most notably Iran. He has continued to discuss foreign policy publicly and hasn't shied away from it when he visits Iowa.
Last week Santorum called both Syria and Egypt "colossal failures."
"The impact of the failure of this administration in both Egypt and in Syria is going to have a ripple effect in the Middle East and for our country for a long, long time," Santorum said. "It's because we have a president who has decided to defer his foreign policy to the United Nations. He's a president who believes that America is not a moral force or a military or ideological force in the world."
Santorum said he has no "doubt" chemical weapons were used, but he is not sure which side used them, differing from the administration and most voices weighing in on the issue.
"It wouldn't be a surprise to me that both sides were using them or that the radical Islamists are using them," Santorum said. "Because these are folks whose watch word is terrorism. There's nothing that strikes more terror than weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical and biological weapons. While I agree with Secretary Kerry -- it is very clear that chemical weapons were used -- the idea that we need to be punishing Assad and doing things to tip the balance in favor of al Qaeda who are running the rebel forces to me is a very questionable tactic of itself."
Governors May Weigh In, But Haven't Yet
The other possible contenders are governors who have yet to weigh in on the conflict, able to focus on statewide issues and stay away from the growing conflict. However, as the calendar moves closer to 2016, possible candidates like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will be forced to voice their opinion.
Of course, that's if they end up running.