House Democrats fear 'another Vietnam'

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Fearing “another Vietnam,” House Democrats are pressing the Obama administration to justify the potential use of military force in Iraq. 

Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), the fourth-ranking House Democrat, laid out a three-part test he said President Obama must clear in order to win support from the Democratic caucus for renewed operations there.

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First, they want evidence the Iraqis are taking diplomatic steps to keep themselves united as one country. Second, they want an explanation of the administration’s ultimate goal in applying force — an “endgame” strategy that justifies its use. And third, they want to know why a military intervention is in America’s best interest.

“Before we put an American in harm’s way, tell us why,” Becerra said Tuesday. “No one wants to see the region descend into further chaos.”

The increasing skepticism from Democrats adds to the challenges facing the White House as it weighs its response to the mounting gains of Sunni militants, who have stormed western Iraq in their push to topple the Shiite-controlled government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Secretary of State John Kerry suggested this week that the administration is on the verge of launching airstrikes to check the jihadists, representing the Islamic State in Iraq in Syria (ISIS).

But a number of Democrats are wary that such strikes could be the first step to a more entrenched commitment less than three years after the last U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq.

“There’s a lot of concern about getting embroiled in another Vietnam and ... about sending American troops once again to fight someone else’s war,” Becerra said after a closed-door meeting of the caucus in the Capitol.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) is among the leery. The 13-term liberal said Obama’s choices are “very limited” considering the history of conflict in the region, America’s role in propping up al-Maliki and the sheer number of sects vying for power. He noted that the Vietnam War also began as a limited engagement.

“I’m old enough to remember John Kennedy sending a few advisers into Vietnam,” McDermott said. “I’m very worried we’ll get in and we’ll get mired down in something we don’t have any idea what to do [with].”

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) delivered a similar message, saying a deeper commitment initiated by limited strikes is his “biggest concern” in Iraq. He was quick to add that Obama has no easy choices.

“The second biggest [concern] is the danger it [the insurgency] presents to instability to the region and terrorism threats,” Quigley said. “It’s a tough balance.”

In eyeing the use of force to quell the ISIS insurgents, Obama, who built his 2008 candidacy around the promise to end the Iraq War, has said repeatedly that he won’t send U.S. troops back into the field.

“American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people in the region and American interests as well,” Obama said last week during a press briefing in the White House.

Becerra said he trusts Obama to take the right steps “to help the Iraqis get their house in order.” But he emphasized that Democrats are eagerly awaiting a bipartisan briefing from administration officials to explain the need for such action as it pertains to U.S. interests.

“Members want to hear more,” he said. “Many of us are still very concerned about trying to send American troops to do what we did before. And the Iraqis never lived up to their end of the bargain after we essentially set the table for them.”

The briefing is expected to take place in the week that Congress returns from its Fourth of July break, according to a Democratic aide.

Obama last week told the top leaders in both parties that the current authorization for use of military force (AUMF) empowers him to launch military strikes in Iraq without separate approval from Congress. The notion has been embraced by the three highest-ranking House Democrats — Reps. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Steny Hoyer (Md.) and James Clyburn (S.C.) — but many rank-and-file members have a decidedly different view.

“As broad as it was, the AUMF for Iraq does not cover this instance, and ... the president should come to Congress and sketch out a plan,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said Tuesday, and “ask for authorization.”

“Because I’m not sure what the plan is.”

McDermott, for his part, said Obama isn’t seeking new authority for a simple reason: Congress wouldn’t give it to him. 

“He will not have the votes,” McDermott said. “We the representatives of the American people don’t want to go to war in that mess.”

This story was updated at 8:20 p.m.