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.

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“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 Scott (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 Clinton.

That coalition has since frayed.

Three of the senators who voted against the 2002 Iraq war authorization — Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Ben Cardin (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 Levin (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 Welch (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 Udall (D-N.M.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) have taken the lead on raising concerns after joining Rand Paul (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.”