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Top Republicans flip-flop on bombing Syria

Posted at 1:16 PM, Apr 08, 2017

(CNN) -- Many of the congressional Republicans who are praising President Donald Trump's decision to strike a Syrian airfield were opposed to President Obama's request to approve a similar action against Syria in 2013.

Trump ordered the launch of more than 50 tomahawk cruise missiles on Thursday in retaliation for Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad's reported use of chemical weapons against his own people. In August of 2013, after Assad used chemical weapons in a similar scenario against people in the Syrian city of Ghouta, Obama requested congressional permission to launch air strikes against the Assad regime.

Many Republicans opposed his request. One of the most prominent was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who on Friday tweeted out his support for Trump's strike, writing, "This was a clear signal from America that Bashar al Assad can no longer use chemical weapons against his own people with impunity."

In a speech on the Senate floor in 2013, however, McConnell announced his opposition to Obama's proposal, saying, "A vital national security risk is clearly not at play, there are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria, including the fact that this proposal is utterly detached from a wider strategy to end the civil war there, and on the specific question of deterring the use of chemical weapons, the President's proposal appears to be based on a contradiction. Either we will strike targets that threaten the stability of the regime --- something the President says he does not intend to do --- or we will execute a strike so narrow as to be a mere demonstration."

Asked about the shift, a spokesperson for Sen. McConnell referred CNN's KFile to comments he made in a press conference Friday morning.

"Yeah, let me tell you the difference," McConnell said. "Secretary Kerry, I guess in order to reassure the left-leaning members of his own party, said it would sort be like a pinprick. You know, it really would not be of any great consequence. I don't know whether he had in mind knocking out a couple of camels or what. But this was a strike that was well-planned, well-executed, went right to the heart of the matter, which is using chemical weapons. So had I seen that kind of approach by President Obama, I'm sure I would've signed up."

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan also endorsed Trump's actions in a statement released Thursday night. "Tonight the United States responded," he said. "This action was appropriate and just."

But in 2013, he too opposed Obama's proposal to attack Syria, saying, "I believe the President's proposed military strike in Syria cannot achieve its stated objectives. In fact, I fear it will make things worse."

Sen. Marco Rubio, who called Trump's actions "the right move" in an interview with CNN on Friday, said of Obama's proposal in 2013, "While I have long argued forcefully for engagement in empowering the Syrian people, I have never supported the use of U.S. military force in the conflict. And I still don't."

He added, "I remain unconvinced that the use of force proposed here will work. The only thing that will prevent Assad from using chemical weapons in the future is for the Syrian people to remove him from power. The strike the administration wants us to approve I do not believe furthers that goal. And in fact, I believe U.S. military action of the type contemplated here might prove to be counterproductive."

A spokesperson for Rubio pointed CNN's KFile to his appearance Friday on "TODAY," where he explained what he saw as the differences between 2013 and now.

"This is not similar to 2013 for a lot of reasons," he said. "Assad was actually losing the war in '13, and if we had supported some of the elements on the ground that were not jihadists, he may have very well fallen. The Russians got involved in '15 --- changed the dynamics. We also didn't have American troops in Syria in 2013 -- we do now. That gives us a national security interest as well."

Sen. Orrin Hatch approvingly tweeted of Trump's decision to attack on Thursday night, but in 2013, he said in a statement, "What is clear is that launching a few missiles will do nothing to end Syria's civil war, and is neither a real strategy to stop the deployment of chemical weapons in Syria nor a guarantee that chemical weapons won't be used in the future by the Assad regime. That is not a plan for the region.

"That's why I continue to have strong reservations about authorizing the use of force against Syria."

House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz tweeted "God Bless the USA" following news of the strikes. But in 2013, Chaffetz repeatedly issued statements declaring his opposition to attacking Syria saying he saw "no clear and present danger to the USA to justify going to war in Syria."

Some members who praised Trump's action went as far as to introduce legislation to stop military action in Syria in 2013.

Rep. Ted Poe of Texas issued a statement declaring the administration "swift and decisive retaliation was an appropriate and proportional response to this horrific crime." But Poe had a remarkably different view of Syria action in 2013 when he argued the administration didn't have the legal authority to attack Syria. Poe introduced a bill which would prohibit the use of funds for military action in Syria unless authorized by Congress.

Poe told CNN's KFile in a statement that "a lot has changed" and so has his stance.

"Syria and Russia agreed to turn over all of Assad's chemical weapons in order to avert US military action. They lied," Poe said. "Assad brazenly used chemical weapons against his own people this week, killing 80 civilians including children. It has been the longstanding policy of the United States to draw a line in the sand when it comes to weapons of mass destruction. The diplomatic option failed."

He continued, "That is why I support President Trump's decision to launch a limited, targeted strike against the airfield from which this heinous attack was launched. If the President would like the expand the mission and take further action, he should consult with Congress."

CNN has reached out to Chaffetz, Hatch, and Ryan, but did not immediately receive a response.

Some Republicans have shown consistency on the issue of striking Syria. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham supported Obama's efforts, and likewise endorsed Trump's actions. Other Republicans, such as Rep. Thomas Massie and Sen. Rand Paul, oppose action in Syria and criticized Trump for acting unilaterally and not going to congress to request permission beforehand. They held similar views in 2013.

Many prominent Democrats who supported Obama's request for congressional of approval called on Trump to ask for the same authority. Senator Tim Kaine supports military action against Assad, and supported Obama's proposal in 2013. He criticized Trump for not getting congressional approval beforehand. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi similarly supported Obama's request, and stated that he should request from congress an Authorization for Use of Military Force.