By Alexander Bolton - 06/19/14 06:00 AM EDT
Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Texas), known for their bold policy positions, are tiptoeing around the political minefield of Iraq.
The possible GOP White House contenders have adopted a cautious approach on Iraq to minimize the chances that the issue blows up on them.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is mulling a 2016 run, sees a chance to differentiate himself from his potential rivals on Iraq. He has thrown his lot in with McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), the most hawkish members of the Senate Republican Conference.
The politics of Iraq have changed dramatically over the last decade. In 2002, only seven congressional Republicans voted against the war. But some in the party, including Tea Party activists, are now suspicious of costly nation-building missions.
Paul has ruled out sending U.S. troops back to Iraq and has warned against other military intervention. He has said he is open-minded on airstrikes.
“We go to war when it’s clear-cut enough that you’re going to tell my son or your son that they know exactly what it is that we’re fighting for. I think it’s confusing to our GIs to ask them to be killing people in one country that they’re aiding in another country,” he told The Des Moines Register when he visited Iowa, host of the nation’s first primary contest.
Paul argues that any military mission in Iraq would have a convoluted rationale because U.S. troops would be helping the Iranian-backed Shiite government at the same time they are fighting Iranian-supported militants in Afghanistan.
Even contemplating airstrikes is a compromise for Paul, a libertarian, who generally has questioned the wisdom of becoming entangled in foreign conflicts.
But to win the GOP nomination in 2016, he might need to improve his image among hawkish Republican primary voters who cast their ballots on the basis of foreign policy.
Cruz has been more circumspect. He has bashed the Obama administration for floating the possibility of working with Iran to stop extremist Sunni militants in Iraq but has not ventured his own foreign policy solution.
He declined this week to answer reporters’ questions about Iraq.
In a recent CNN interview, he stayed on safe ground by criticizing the administration’s response to the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, a reliable GOP talking point, and warned against partnering with Iran to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Cruz’s office issued a statement warning that any mission in Iraq must be directed “to protecting the national security interests of the United States, not based on the ephemeral goal of achieving political reconciliation in Baghdad.”
Cruz said in the statement that “degrading the lethality” of ISIS “might well be in our interests,” a softer stance than that taken by Rubio, McCain and Graham.
“Whatever the history of U.S. intervention in Iraq, our priorities now should be to protect our people and defend our national security interests, not to try to resolve an intractable religious divide some 1,500 years in the making,” he said.
The war in Iraq has proven to be a high-stakes issue over the years.
Hillary Clinton’s vote in 2002 to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq dogged her throughout the 2008 Democratic presidential primary and cost her the nomination.
Clinton apologized for her vote in her recently released memoir, Hard Choices.
“I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had. And I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple,” she wrote.
Biden and former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) also had to repeatedly defend their votes to invade during the 2008 contest, as did John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president in 2004, who twisted himself into a pretzel explaining his clashing votes on war funding.
Republican senators hoping to take over control of the chamber in the midterm election have, by and large, taken a low profile on what to do next in Iraq. They remember public opposition to the war cost them their majority in the 2006 election.
“Everybody is laying really low,” said Graham.
He said he would vote for sending U.S. troops in to bolster the Iraqi army and guide airstrikes but acknowledged he would be in a small minority if it came up for a vote.
Rubio is with Graham, however. The Florida Republican has argued why the American public should view Iraq’s descent into full-on civil war as a serious threat.
“What’s happening in Iraq has a direct bearing on the future security of every American,” Rubio said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
He warned that Iraq could become a staging ground for terrorist attacks against the United States like Afghanistan was for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
A senior Senate Democratic aide speculated that Rubio is using the issue to “gain an edge” on Paul, who has downplayed the national security stakes.
Rubio argued Wednesday that 9/11 might have been avoided had U.S. forces cracked down on militants in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
“We must learn the lessons of before 2001, and we must say to ourselves, under no circumstances will we ever again allow a safe haven for this kind of terrorist to ever gain a safe haven anywhere in the world,” he said.
Rubio’s remarks followed a similar speech he delivered on the floor last week in which he called for U.S. military strikes to support the Iraqi army and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“The U.S. must continue to provide lethal assistance to the extent possible to help these Iraqi forces, particularly those concentrated in Baghdad, to repel and push back against this group,” he said.
Rubio has called for air strikes against ISIS. Paul, meanwhile, hasn’t gone that far. Rubio also told Miami radio station WIOD Wednesday that American forces should try “through the air and other means available to us” to cut off supply routes fueling the ISIS march on Baghdad.
Updated at 10:15 a.m.