Anti-war Democrats’ lack of unity gives Obama cover on Syria policy

Liberal Democrats are all over the map when it comes to Syria, giving President Obama political cover to increase U.S. engagement in the war-torn country as he sees fit.

Many of the same lawmakers who virulently opposed the war in Iraq a decade ago now support the president’s decision to arm vetted rebel groups. They see Obama’s two-year struggle with the worsening crisis as evidence that he shares their reservations — unlike former President George W. Bush, whom they saw as gung-ho on invading Iraq.

“The problem [Obama] has is that all of the options are potentially problematic. But one of the worst things he can do at this point is nothing,” said Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottOvernight Health Care: Trump eases rules on insurance outside ObamaCare | HHS office on religious rights gets 300 complaints in a month | GOP chair eyes opioid bill vote by Memorial Day Overnight Regulation: Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks | Trump eases rules on insurance sold outside of ObamaCare | FCC to officially rescind net neutrality Thursday | Obama EPA chief: Reg rollback won't stand Dems decry ObamaCare change as new attempt at 'sabotage' MORE (D-Va.), echoing former President Clinton’s regrets about not doing more to stop the genocide in Rwanda.

“And so this limited involvement has a high potential for doing good and less potential for doing bad,” Scott said.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called the administration’s decision to provide arms to the Syrian rebels “a measured step” that he supports. But he made it clear his “enthusiasm isn’t bubbling over.”

“I worry about creeping escalation,” Grijalva said, “to the point that we’re in so deep that we’re in the same quagmire that we’ve been in in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Obama himself has said he’s weighed both sides of the coin.

“It is very easy to slip-slide your way into deeper and deeper commitments,” he told PBS’s Charlie Rose on Monday in explaining why he’s wary of forceful U.S. action like a no-fly zone.

“Now, on the other side there are folks who say, you know, ‘We are so scarred from Iraq. We should have learned our lesson. We should not have anything to do with it.’ Well, I reject that view as well because the fact of the matter is, is that we’ve got serious interests there,” Obama said.

Congressional support will be crucial for Obama in the weeks ahead as he follows through on his promise to supply vetted rebel groups with “military support” in response to President Bashar Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons and his forces’ progress on the ground.

A large majority — 70 percent — of Americans oppose the move, according to recent polling, including the liberal Democrats who elected Obama in 2008 as the anti-war alternative to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWoman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Trump: CNN, MSNBC 'got scammed' into covering Russian-organized rally Pennsylvania Democrats set to win big with new district map MORE.

That coalition has since frayed.

Three of the senators who voted against the 2002 Iraq war authorization — Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinAmerica’s waning commitment to the promise of the First Amendment Senate rejects Trump immigration plan What to watch for in the Senate immigration votes MORE (D-Ill.), Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerKamala Harris endorses Gavin Newsom for California governor Dems face hard choice for State of the Union response Billionaire Steyer to push for Dem House push MORE (D-Calif.) and Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinWashington puts Ethiopia's human rights abusers on notice Overnight Defense: Mattis vows Dreamers in military won't be deported | Pentagon unsure if military parade will be in Washington | Dem bill would block funds for parade Dems introduce bills to block funds for Trump's proposed parade MORE (D-Md.) — voted for legislation to arm the rebels that cleared the Senate Foreign Relations panel on a 15-3 vote last month. And Sen. Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinSen. Gillibrand, eyeing 2020 bid, rankles some Democrats The Hill's 12:30 Report Congress needs bipartisanship to fully investigate Russian influence MORE (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services and another “no” vote on Iraq, has gone one step further and called for a no-fly zone to protect rebel-held areas.

“I would go further than the president,” Levin said in March.

The bellicose rhetoric from its own side has left anti-war Democrats on the defensive.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who opposes arming the rebels, said it’s high time for Congress to be brought in on the conversation.

“If the president is so confident that we are going to do something about it, then we ought to be briefed,” Rangel said. “I don’t know about Russia providing arms and we’re providing arms — then they’ll be providing advisers and we’ll provide advisers. You know, I’ve been to this movie before.”

Rep. Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchEx-rep. is still costing taxpayers billions in prescription fees Senators offer bill to close rural-urban internet divide Clinton mulls role in 2018 midterms MORE (D-Vt.) warned that “even escalating what arms we give [presents] a real danger of Americanizing what is a civil war.”

In the Senate, Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallCongress fails miserably: For Asian-Americans, immigration proposals are personal attacks Senate rejects centrist immigration bill after Trump veto threat Dem senators want list of White House officials with interim security clearances MORE (D-N.M.) and Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyLawmakers feel pressure on guns Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks Kasich’s campaign website tones down gun language after Florida shooting MORE (D-Conn.) have taken the lead on raising concerns after joining Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulDem wins Kentucky state House seat in district Trump won by 49 points GOP's tax reform bait-and-switch will widen inequality Pentagon budget euphoria could be short-lived MORE (R-Ky.) in voting against the Senate measure. They both delivered floor speeches this week opposing Obama’s decision, and are expected to announce their next move during a press conference Wednesday.

Murphy warned that the mix of U.S. power and good intentions could lead to the same kind of “hubris” that he said marred Bush’s war in Iraq.

“I fear that we are on the verge of falling into this deep, dark hole, once again,” Murphy said Tuesday. “It is not enough for there to be a will. There also has to be a way.

“And ... today, in Syria, I do not believe there is that way,” he said, “and I do not believe this Congress should give the president the ability to escalate America’s role in the Syrian conflict without a clear set of goals and clear sense that we can achieve these goals.”