Key Democrats offer Obama support on Iraq — and a warning

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Key House Democrats offered public support on Tuesday for President Obama’s air strikes against Iraq, but warned he must come to Congress if he decides to broaden the campaign.

The comments from Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, highlight the tight rope Obama is walking on Iraq.

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Although the president has repeatedly said the airstrikes will not lead to U.S. ground troops in Iraq, Lee and other Democrats have expressed fears of “mission creep” in the fight against extremist fighters in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Lee and Hoyer in a call with reporters emphasized that no move to send ground troops into the war-torn nation should happen without the explicit backing of Congress. 

“All of us agree that boots on the ground are not in the offing, at this point in time, nor should they be … without further consultation and action by the Congress,” Hoyer said on a call with reporters. “But I think the president is acting properly, and I have urged the administration to act decisively in terms of protection of the Kurdish area of Iraq and giving the humanitarian aid to the people who were surrounded on that mountain.”

Lee agreed, saying she supports "limited and targeted assistance with military strikes." 

“He [Obama] clearly stated that these strikes were about two things,” said Lee, the only member of Congress to oppose a measure authorizing military force in Afghanistan more than a decade ago.

“Protecting our embassy personnel … as well as trying to prevent a terrible genocide. 

“If they change their policy and decide differently, other than limited targeted strikes … they should come to Congress, we should have a debate, and we should [have] the vote,” Lee added.

ISIS fighters have forced tens of thousands of Yazidis to flee their homes and had threatened to kill members of the religious minority group if they did not convert. ISIS had also advanced on Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital in Iraq, where many American personnel are located.

Some liberals on and off Capitol Hill are wary that the administration's decision to launch targeted airstrikes is just the first step of a broader military effort less than three years after the last U.S. troops were pulled from Iraq.

“I oppose open-ended military commitments, which the president’s actions in Iraq could become,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Friday. “I am deeply concerned that these actions could lead to prolonged direct military involvement, which I would strongly oppose."

Complicating the issue, Iraqi leaders are currently locked in their own battle, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has refused to cede power, even after Iraqi President Fouad Massoum named Haider al-Abadi prime minister-designate on Monday. 

Both Obama and Vice President Biden welcomed the appointment of al-Abadi this week, and administration officials are urging him to waste no time forming a new, more inclusive government to push back against ISIS. 

Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the administration is prepared to offered equipment, training and other indirect support to al-Abadi, but has no interest in refighting the ground battles of the last decade. 

“Nobody, I think, is looking towards a return to the road that we've traveled,” Kerry said during a trip to Australia, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Lee said she and other Democrats recognize the danger of ISIS, but that only a political settlement between Iraq’s factions will lead to stability.

“When we say we don't want this conflict to expand, we recognize that ISIS is dangerous. But we darn sure do not want to see our troops inserted into another war in Iraq. In fact, … we [McGovern, Jones and Lee] passed a resolution several weeks ago … saying in no uncertain terms that the Congress will not support combat troops in Iraq,” she said.