08/30/2013 04:46 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2013

Between Benghazi and Syria, GOP Hawks Lack Credibility

The best precedent for U.S. intervention in Syria, as a response to the Assad
regime's flagrant and horrifying use of chemical weapons, should be the 2011 NATO air strikes against Libya's Gadhafi regime. But thanks in no small part to the unceasing efforts by interventionist Republicans to criminalize the very Libya campaign they had once demanded, they have erased all credit for its nominal success -- even as they call for stronger measures in Syria.

In Iraq, we lost over four thousand of our own troops, and arguably that country is no more stable or secure than Libya where -- yes, tragically -- we lost four U.S. diplomatic personnel. Total. Libya has proven a relative success story, given the minimal cost, duration and casualty count of our military engagement there.

Republicans, including those who egged on the administration to affect regime change in Libya, have failed to bring low President Obama over the Benghazi "talking points." But they have succeeded in blunting the value of Libya as an example of Obama's capacity for limited, strategic strikes. Ironically, many Republicans are now invoking the Iraq experience -- a legacy of George W. Bush -- as the most relevant lesson against any intervention in Syria.

Legally and politically, the hyped-up charges around Benghazi have no impact. But the messaging war has been won by the Republicans. It's too bad for President Obama, and also for GOP Senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham who have pursued Benghazi as a partisan political weapon against their own geopolitical ambitions for principled U.S. intervention.

Just this week, a group of mostly conservative and neo-conservative luminaries published an open letter telling President Obama "What to Do In Syria." Hint: It involves a whole lot of ordnance... Prominent among the signers is Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who as recently as a few weeks ago was still posting podcasts with the title, "Benghazi Is Not a 'Phony Scandal.'" And he expects the administration to heed his counsel.

McCain and Graham deserve both congratulations and pity, since -- but for their Benghazi drumbeat -- they could have used Libya to back up their arguments for attacking Syria. Even though the two cases are hardly identical, that is a better comparison than Iraq in terms of scale or casus belli. Whichever decision would be wiser at this stage, the Syrian people deserve better from those who claim to champion their cause.