The U.S. military’s renewed involvement in Iraq has ignited a firestorm in Congress, where Republicans are decrying airstrikes targeting Islamist militants as an inadequate response to a rising terrorist threat.
Democrats, meanwhile, are appealing to President Obama to resist GOP calls to ratchet up the aerial assault on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), cautioning that their support for the strikes has limits.
The dual warnings underscore a difficult road ahead for Obama as he seeks to contain an increasingly powerful al Qaeda offshoot without dragging the war-weary United States back onto the battlefield.
Obama announced last Thursday that he had authorized targeted airstrikes near the Kurdish city of Irbil in northern Iraq, where ISIS forces are holding thousands of hungry Yazidi refugees under siege.
The president has signaled a measured approach to the operation, emphasizing that he would not put U.S. boots back on the ground in Iraq.
“I’ve been very clear that we’re not going to have combat troops in Iraq again,” Obama said this weekend, before leaving Washington for a family vacation at Martha’s Vineyard.
On Sunday, congressional Republicans unleashed a steady stream of criticism over Obama’s handling of the crisis.
Sens. John McCainJohn McCainA guide to the committees: Senate Webb: The future of conservatism New national security adviser pick marks big change on Russia MORE (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamDem senator asks for 'top to bottom' review of Syria policy A guide to the committees: Senate Cheney to intro Pence at Jewish GOP event MORE (R-S.C.) accused the president of underestimating the threat posed by ISIS.
“This commander in chief has no strategy, he has no vision,” Graham said. “This is a situation where he knows better than everybody else.”
The lawmakers described the narrow attack aimed at destroying ISIS arms and equipment as insufficient.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) went a step further, calling for a “massive air attack” on ISIS forces. King, a former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the assault, now being waged from aircraft carriers, would be more effective if it were expanded to land-based military installations in the region.
While he stopped short of calling for ground troops, King criticized Obama for signaling that the U.S. is unwilling to ramp up the fight.
“We should take nothing off the table,” he said, describing ISIS as “more powerful now than al-Qaeda was on 9/11.”
But escalating the operation in Iraq would risk backlash from Democrats hesitant to support any military involvement.
Assistant Majority Leader Dick DurbinDick DurbinA guide to the committees: Senate McConnell: I’m very sympathetic to 'Dreamers' Senate Dems move to nix Trump's deportation order MORE (D-Ill.) said that reluctance reflects public sentiment after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I can tell you this: Escalating it is not in the cards,” said Durbin. Neither the American people nor Congress are in the business of wanting to escalate this conflict beyond where it is today.
Durbin and other congressional Democrats making the rounds on the Sunday news shows offered support for the targeted strikes, accompanied by airdrops of food and water to the stranded refugees.
Among them were Sens. Ben CardinBen CardinA guide to the committees: Senate House bill would prevent Trump from lifting Russian sanctions Overnight Cybersecurity: White House does damage control on Flynn | Pressure builds for probe MORE (D-Md.) and Jack ReedJack ReedA guide to the committees: Senate Cruz: Supreme Court 'likely' to uphold Trump order Schumer: Trump should see 'handwriting on the wall,' drop order MORE (D-R.I.), who said that the president’s approach would help prevent the killings of thousands of refugees and help stabilize the region.
But Cardin warned that the campaign must not be open-ended, signaling that Democratic support is not without an expiration date.
“What we will not do is become the Iraqi Air Force,” Cardin said during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday." “Obviously we got to be extremely concerned that we’re not drawn into that type of military action.”
Obama, however, has declined to set a firm deadline for the strikes. On Saturday, he described the crisis as a “long-term project” unlikely to be resolved in the coming weeks.