Iraq haunts Obama’s march to military strikes against Syria

The Obama administration’s march toward military strikes against Syria appeared to slow Thursday amid reverberations from both sides of the Atlantic over the Iraq War.

The British Parliament handed Prime Minister David Cameron a stunning defeat, rejecting his attempt to win approval for military action in a 285-272 vote.

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Faulty intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War played a huge role in dooming Cameron’s push for British action: Cameron said it was “indisputable” that public opinion had been “poisoned by the Iraq episode.”

In the U.S., more subtle signs emerged that Iraq’s legacy was hampering the Obama White House’s push to strike Syria over its alleged chemical weapons attacks on civilians.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said the U.S. still should “ascertain who used the weapons” before taking action, while The Associated Press cited an unnamed U.S. official Thursday who said the intelligence was no “slam dunk.”

The “slam dunk” remark referenced former CIA Director George Tenet’s 2002 assertion that U.S. intelligence showed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Separately, more than 150 lawmakers, some of them opponents of the Iraq war in 2003, demanded that Obama win congressional approval before taking any military action.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) wrote in an op-ed Thursday that the Bush administration’s incorrect intelligence was “haunting” those who support action against Syria.

“The president must present the American people and the international community with clear evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for the use of chemical weapons,” he wrote, calling for "strong action" against Assad if the evidence is presented.

The White House dismissed comparisons to Iraq as reports surfaced it was prepared to hit Syria without the support of allies.

“I don't agree that these are similar situations,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at Thursday’s press briefing. “I think that there are some very important differences.

“What we saw in that circumstance was an administration that was searching high and low to produce evidence to justify a military invasion, an open-ended military invasion of another country, with the final goal being regime change,” Earnest said.

The number of voices urging the White House to tread cautiously rose Thursday, with a group of 53 liberal Democrats saying that, while atrocities committed by Syria’s government were “horrific,” they alone “should not draw us into an unwise war.”

“We must learn the lessons of the past. Lessons from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and others,” wrote Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who spearheaded the letter.

Another parallel to Iraq was the fear that the strikes could draw the U.S. into another lengthy war in the Middle East.

“Whatever gang of bad guys win in Syria has nothing to do with the security of the United States. We should have learned our lesson from the Iraq War,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said in a statement.

Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who has threatened to try to impeach Obama if Americans are killed in Syria without congressional approval, said in an interview that even if the intelligence proved Assad used chemical weapons, he was opposed to U.S. intervention.

“We’ve done nothing but create a worse problem in the Middle East,” Jones said of the Iraq war, of which he was one of the most vocal Republican opponents. “It is time for America to let some of these other countries take the lead. I see no threat to the national security to this country in Syria.”

Supporters of U.S. intervention in Syria are pointing back to Iraq to make their case for involvement. They say stepping in to stop a humanitarian crisis and establish a precedent against the use of chemical weapons is worth the risks surrounding military action.

“The reality is, unfortunately, we can't insulate ourselves in the world,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said on CBS's “This Morning.”

“You're looking at someone who voted against the war in Iraq when a war vote was popular,” he said. “I don't take this position lightly, but the reality is if we do not act, we are going to have a global message that the use of chemical weapons against citizens, including against our troops potentially in other parts of the world, our allies in other parts of the world, can be had without consequence.”