By Mike Lillis - 06/17/14 08:40 PM EDT
Key Democrats offered support on Tuesday for President Obama to take military action in Iraq.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Obama should consider military strikes against advancing Islamist forces, and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) went even further, calling for direct action against Sunni jihadists marching on Baghdad.
The two Democrats are warning that the fall of the Iraqi government to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Sunni group linked to al Qaeda, would not only further destabilize Iraq but would also pose a direct threat to U.S. interests in the region and beyond.
“Most important is that we take direct action now against ISIS, marching down to Baghdad, and prevent them from getting into Baghdad,” Feinstein told reporters in the Capitol. She said airstrikes could “absolutely” be a facet of that direct action.
Hoyer’s support for action was not as strongly stated, but he said the U.S. couldn’t allow Iraq to become like pre-2001 Afghanistan, where terrorists hatched attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon.
“This is not just a question of internal stability in Iraq. It is a question of bases for training and deployment of attacks on the United States,” Hoyer said.
The comments from the two centrist Democrats precede a Wednesday meeting between Obama and congressional leaders on Iraq, and suggest there is some support in Obama’s party for military action in Iraq.
Even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has long boasted that more than half the Democratic Caucus opposed the Iraq War, has opened up this week to the prospect of further military action in the war-torn nation.
“When they say military, as long as they don’t mean boots on the ground, then we can talk about something if it means providing equipment or some other assist,” Pelosi said Monday, according to The Associated Press.
Those comments mark a shift in tone from just a few days ago, when Pelosi warned that there isn’t “any appetite in our country for us to become engaged in any more military activity in Iraq.”
“The American people have been exhausted with wars,” she said Thursday.
Opposition from Republicans and Democrats in Congress embarrassed the White House last year when Obama asked lawmakers to approve military action against Syria. Diplomatic moves involving Russian President Vladimir Putin ended up saving Obama from almost certainly losing a vote on military action in Syria.
Obama has so far resisted calls from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to launch missile strikes on the ISIS militants, who have overrun several major Iraqi cities on their quest to take Baghdad. Obama has emphasized he’s not ruling out any options, but he’s also warned that no military assistance is forthcoming if the sides don’t take diplomatic steps to end the crisis.
Polls suggest voters have little interest in military involvement in Iraq, and a number of Democratic lawmakers offered more dovish views than Feinstein and Hoyer.
They said the administration should withhold further military help until al-Maliki either steps down or dramatically changes his tune.
“In the long run, outside military intervention won’t make any difference if [Prime Minister] Maliki doesn’t strengthen the political legitimacy of his government with the Iraqi people,” Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tuesday in an email.
“If Mr. Maliki takes the first steps to bring the Sunnis into his government and stabilize the political situation, then I am willing to consider more military assistance, possibly to include air strikes,” Engel added. “But we cannot be drawn into a repeat of the past decade.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a veteran of the Iraq War and member of the Foreign Affairs panel, is opposed to airstrikes more broadly, warning that such a strategy would “put us in a more dangerous situation because it will force us to take sides in what is a very dangerous, religious civil war.”
“We can use our resources in a very targeted way, in a very strategic and clear-headed way to address those threats directly,” she told CNN Tuesday. “But getting involved in this religious civil war that’s been going on for generations will not accomplish that.”
Hoyer stressed that any new U.S. military intervention would have to be temporary, and Iraq’s long-term stability will hinge on the effectiveness of the country’s Shiite leaders “reaching out to the Sunni moderate leadership and trying to construct a new paradigm of cooperation.”
The minority whip said he doesn’t know how many Democrats in the caucus agree with him on the issue, but he predicted a significant number would.
“I think the view is pretty widely shared across the ideological divide that Maliki has been the author of the instability that he now finds himself threatened by,” he said. “And that is unfortunate, but it has consequences for us as well, and I think a lot of Democrats would see that.”
Kristina Wong contributed.
This story was posted at 7:37 p.m. and updated at 8:40 p.m.