Democrats split on strikes in Iraq

Greg Nash

Democratic leaders are providing President Obama with backing for targeted military action in Iraq, exposing deep divisions in a party where many members are adamantly opposed to the renewed use of military force in the war-torn country.

Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.) on Wednesday endorsed the idea of launching drone strikes in Iraq, becoming the latest in a growing list of Democratic leaders to support military intervention to prevent Sunni militants from toppling Baghdad and the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

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But Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a former head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the only member of Congress to oppose authorization of the war on terror in 2001, the same day said she would offer at least two amendments to the Defense spending bill designed to prevent any new military involvement in Iraq.

Lee’s amendments could come up for votes as early as Thursday.

One would prohibit funding for any combat operations in Iraq, while another would effectively nullify the 2002 Iraq Authorization of the Use of Military Force that permitted then-President George W. Bush to launch attacks against Saddam Hussein.

“We must recognize that there is no military solution in Iraq,” Lee wrote Wednesday in a “Dear Colleague” letter to her fellow Democrats. 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Wednesday said the authority that Lee wants to repeal empowers Obama to launch attacks against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has taken over a broad swath of territory in both countries, without going to Congress first. 

“I do not believe the President needs any further legislative authority to pursue the particular options for increased security assistance discussed today,” Pelosi said in a statement. “I am pleased by the president’s efforts to secure strong Congressional support, and I look forward to additional consultation.”

Clyburn and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have also expressed support for this argument.

All three Democratic leaders have expressed opposition to putting ground troops in Iraq, something the Obama administration has ruled out, while offering support for other military action.

Clyburn, an opponent of the Iraq War, offered vigorous support for a drone attack against ISIS.

“I’m a great believer in drones, and I think that this situation cries out for it,” said Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat and a respected voice within the CBC.

Hoyer, the minority whip, said Tuesday that Obama “certainly ... should be considering” airstrikes to counter the ISIS threat.

The support from top Democrats provides Obama with cover and flexibility as he weighs his approach to the escalating violence in Iraq, but it also sets the leaders apart from many rank-and-file members who are vehemently against the use of military force less than three years after the last U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq.

Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) warned Wednesday that even a limited military engagement could lead to a much greater commitment down the road.

“I worry about us getting sucked into another endless war,” he said.

“There has to be something between doing nothing and dropping bombs,” added McGovern, a leading voice against the original Iraq War. “Everybody seems to be rushing toward the military solution. We ought to be thinking long and hard about ... other ways to do this that would actually have a lasting impact.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat from West Virginia, echoed that message Wednesday. 

“If money or military might would change that part of the world ... we would have done it by now,” he told CNN. “Enough is enough.”

Many Democrats say they’re not opposed to a military response, per se, but they also don’t want to prop up a government under al-Maliki “that’s just rotten,” in the words of McGovern.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, argued Obama should withhold any military help “until such time as either Maliki’s gone or Maliki’s policies change dramatically.”

“Just because ISIS is bad doesn’t mean that Maliki is good,” Sherman said.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, warned that any U.S. intervention would be fruitless without diplomatic concessions from the warring Iraqi factions. 

“I don’t know if there’s any utility in involving ourselves in what is quickly descending into civil war, unless the leaders in Iraq are willing to say that they want to be a [unified] country,” Becerra said. “I’m not sure where the White House is preparing to go. ... [But] you have to prove to me that the Iraqis are willing to step up and say that Shia will protect Sunni, Sunni will protect Shia, and the Kurds will do the same.”

The debate arrives as the administration is eyeing targeted missile strikes against the ISIS militants in an effort to bring some stability to the embattled nation. Support from Democratic leaders will be crucial, if Obama goes that route; he faces both a public and a Congress hostile to the notion of launching new operations after more than a decade of war post-9/11.

Obama huddled at the White House Wednesday afternoon with top congressional leaders — including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Pelosi — to discuss the issue.

“The solution to every difficult problem in the world is not necessarily flexing our military muscle,” McGovern said. “We’ve done enough of that.”