09/13/2013 03:59 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2013

Syria, the Tea Party, and the Future of American Power

President Obama's decision to forego a unilateral military strike on Syria and seek authorization for the use of force from Congress has seemingly changed the diplomatic dynamics surrounding the Syrian crisis. The president's decision has allowed time for diplomacy, but with the specter of military force hanging over the negotiations, there is both an impetus and an opportunity for constructive discussions and potential for further positive movement toward resolution of the Syrian crisis.

Nevertheless, despite tenuous progress in the diplomatic realm, the American domestic political situation remains hopelessly divided and ineffective. The president's resolution on Syria would most likely have failed to garner the necessary levels of support in either house of Congress. While the vote may have been relatively close in the Senate, opposition to the resolution was overwhelming in the House of Representatives, despite the support of Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. While this is partially reflective of the complex nature of the Syrian crisis and America's fractious and polarized politics, it may also illustrate a more basic shift in U.S. views on foreign policy and existing and emerging divisions within the two major political parties that could shape the role of the United States in the world for years to come.

On the left there has been a consistent, reflexive opposition to the use of military force and defense spending since the end of the Vietnam War, while moderate Democrats have generally supported a strong national defense and actively contributed to a centrist Cold War consensus. However, in light of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a vote in support of President Bush's open-ended war resolution is now viewed as a black mark for many Democrats and the base of the party is skeptical of further military involvement in the Middle East after a decade of war.

The Republican Party has been far more bullish on defense spending and hawkish on foreign interventions. Typified by the Reagan military buildup of the 1980s, and embodied in the familiar phrase "Peace Through Strength," the modern Republican Party has held a strong national defense party as a core tenet. We still see this tradition today, particularly among neoconservative politicians and intellectuals, but the emergence of more libertarian Republicans, typically identifying with the "Tea Party" movement, has created a significant potential rift within the GOP.

With a worldview predicated on the notion of limited government intervention in the economy and civic life, these libertarian republican politicians seem far more willing to enforce fiscal constraints on defense and national security budgets than their traditional republican colleagues. They also openly question the perceived need for U.S. leadership and engagement in the world, and thus the ostensible requirement to maintain a large military capable of projecting power around the globe. It is not clear how far many leading libertarian politicians will go to maintain their ideological consistency in future Republican primaries or general elections, but in a war-weary nation where budget deficits and debt are also a central concern, defense spending seems unlikely to be afforded privilege and protection from cuts in the short-term. This has implications that extend well beyond the Syria crisis.

One of the questions that has emerged from the debate about sequestration and the potential damage done to military readiness is whether the United States can remain a great power -- if not the world's single dominant superpower -- if its citizens and elected leaders refuse to pay its bills. The public spat between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul over the negative impact of sequestration, as well as Paul's ongoing opposition to Arizona Senator John McCain over intervention in Syria underscore the divisions within the Republican Party over fundamental issues that may well define the nature of American power in the future.

Many experts and observers lament the loss of U.S. power and fear the implications of a growing global perception of American weakness. But America's decline may actually be self-imposed, rather than due to any shift in world politics. Taken to their logical conclusion, the ideas ascribed to and espoused by the new libertarian Republican leaders will necessarily place strict limits on the ability of the federal government to extract the resources necessary to maintain America's preponderance of power.

The ongoing debates over Syria and the federal budget both underscore the need to revisit the question of America's proper role in the world. Many Americans may indeed be comfortable with retrenchment from the international realm twelve years after the 9/11 attacks, but such a shift in U.S. foreign policy would not be without significant risks and likely potential costs. We saw little debate on these critical issues in the last presidential election. It is essential that the oversight is not repeated in 2014 and 2016.