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Senate Republicans Rebuke President On Syria And Afghanistan Policy

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell led the effort to advance an amendment that supports keeping U.S. troops in Syria and Afghanistan to fight ISIS and al-Qaida.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell led the effort to advance an amendment that supports keeping U.S. troops in Syria and Afghanistan to fight ISIS and al-Qaida.

Republicans have had no shortage of foreign policy disagreements with President Trump, whose presidential campaign ran diametrically opposed to many central tenets of traditional GOP stances on international affairs.

The GOP-controlled Senate voted again to go on the record with more pushback on foreign policy — this time on Syria.

Led by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Senate advanced an amendment 68-23 to a broader Mideast policy measure that warned against a "precipitous withdrawal" from the Middle Eastern nation. The measure was attached to a broader Mideast policy bill that the Senate is still debating.

The president unexpectedly tweeted in December that the United States was withdrawing its approximately 2,000 troops from Syria, against the advice of the Pentagon.

"We have won against ISIS, we have beaten them, and we have beaten them badly," the president said in December via a video message on his preferred medium, Twitter. "And now it's time for our troops to come back home."

That sudden declaration of a withdrawal from Syria — and Trump's claim of victory over ISIS — was news to American diplomats, military officers and lawmakers, who raised concerns that ISIS had not yet been defeated and that the withdrawal would leave U.S. allies in the lurch.

Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis both resigned shortly following Trump's announcement, protesting the sudden change in policy.

"My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held," Mattis wrote in his December resignation letter to the president. "You have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects."

With Thursday's vote, now it was the Senate's turn to put its rebuke on the record.

McConnell's resolution urges the Trump administration to conduct a thorough review of its strategy regarding Syria, including an assessment of the risks of withdrawal, and calls on the administration to certify the enduring defeat of al-Qaida and ISIS before any significant withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria or Afghanistan.

"ISIS and al-Qaida have yet to be defeated. And American national security interests require continued commitment to our missions," McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Republican senators have been put in the uncomfortable position of chiding the president while simultaneously appearing to support him. It is a reflection of both Trump's unorthodox beliefs and his enduring popularity with the Republican base they both share.

Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that what the president had declared was just a "shorter" version of what the Senate was now passing.

Asked by NPR whether the resolution was a rebuke of the president, Risch said, "No, it isn't, because it's not."

"This is just a way of saying that we in the Congress ... the military ... and the president agree," Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told NPR. "It's just another way of emphasizing something that people just don't understand."

The vote on Syria is not the only example of Republican dissent regarding the administration's policies. GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado are helping to lead an effort in both chambers on Capitol Hill to prevent the president from aiding the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.

There is bipartisan support for legislation that would direct the president to remove U.S. armed forces from the conflict in Yemen — the Senate voted 56-41 back in December to end American military support to the Saudi-led coalition.

Lee told NPR that some Republicans were brought on board "because of the separation-of-powers issue. Others were perhaps ... prompted a little bit more by — when they saw what happened with Mr. Khashoggi, it caused them to lose a little bit of confidence in the fact that we're assisting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

Thursday's vote is just the latest example of Republicans trying to corral a president whose instincts fall far outside what a more establishment GOP president would have preferred.

On issues like NATO, on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, on Russia sanctions, on North Korea, Republican lawmakers have repeatedly stood up to the president on his national security policy.

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Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.