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What's behind the Republican divides on Syria?

The Syria debate dividing Republicans for and against action may seem like a newly-emerging split, or even a potential course change, for a party that was long associated with support for Iraq and Afghanistan. But these divides have been simmering for a while.

As Iraq wound down there was plenty skepticism and war-weariness within the GOP. The Syria crisis only brings it to the fore. That doesn't mean Syria is analogous to those conflicts, but in public opinion the recent past usually informs the present.

In the spring of 2004, a year into the Iraq war, 80 percent of Republicans called it the right thing to have done and just 15 percent would have stayed out. By 2013, on the 10th anniversary of the war, a lower 61 percent of Republicans looked back on Iraq as the right thing, and twice as many, 31 percent, would've stayed out. (Though it wasn't a steady drop - the number bounced around here and there.) Some of this is driven by peoples' reading of results: Republicans 10 years on were only mixed on whether the war had achieved its goals, which is about the same place the overall public was.

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By the end of 2011, most approved of removing the troops. And we saw these distinct parts of the GOP coalition as they picked standard-bearers, too: back in 2008, a third of Republicans in the New Hampshire primary disapproved of the war (even as they gave their votes to John McCain, who had supported the surge.) The rise of the tea party, sometimes questioning the financial and other costs of America's expanded role overseas, gave voice to some of these doubts, too, in recent years. Before his son Rand emerged in the Senate, Ron Paul drew impassioned support in the Republican primaries in part by sounding these themes.

Just last winter, the CBS News poll asked if the U.S. should generally try to change dictatorships to democracies around the world, or stay out of other countries' affairs. Seven in 10 Republicans said stay out, though that was in the shadow of the crisis in Libya. But the numbers for intervening, in principle, hadn't been all that high in the last decade anyway: in 2008, while President Bush was still in office, only 28 percent said change dictators as a matter of policy; in December of 2006 only 36 percent did. (And note that's more or less been the default position of most Americans, overall, going back almost 30 years to 1986 when we started asking the question - and when six in 10 Americans said stay out.)

The divides in the GOP now don't necessarily mean Republicans, as a party, have become less hawkish or more isolationist or whichever labels might get hung on it - and it isn't clear most rank and file voters even think in those terms - though the eventual vote on Syria may impact the party brand.

What we seein the Senate between leaders like John McCain - who's in favor - and Rand Paul, who's not, and in recent polls like Pew's where rank-and-file Republicans are split, mark disagreements that have roots before this debate. Voters' are likely to gauge this by retrospectively weighing past decisions by their subsequent outcomes, which is common to do for everyone. That doesn't necessarily signal a change in principles on the individual voter level. (Democrats, for their part, are having much the opposite fight right now, though it probably seems less novel after a long period of vocal opposition to Iraq and Afghanistan.)

It also isn't easy right now to disentangle Republican opposition to the administration on Syria from opposition to the Obama administration per se - nor support from Democrats, because of it. But the span of GOP views on these issues certainly haven't emerged overnight, and aren't solely a function of current politics.

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