Fears are growing in Congress about the deeper U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
The latest flashpoint is President Obama’s decision this week to send an additional 250 special operations troops to Syria, where they will support forces battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The decision follows a separate move to increase the number of troops in Iraq and as the Pentagon and White House struggle to withdraw troops as scheduled from Afghanistan, where the Taliban — and a nascent ISIS presence — are gaining strength.
The continual deployments have alarmed dovish lawmakers who worry about mission creep, a gradual shift in military objectives over the course of a campaign.
“We see a continual escalation with the now 250 additional troops,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the lone dissenting vote against 2001 legislation authorizing military force in Afghanistan, told The Hill on Tuesday.
“Whenever you have troops in harm’s way, unintended consequences could occur,” she said. “I’m very worried that our troops, while advisers, are still in the middle of the war and without authorization from Congress.”
Obama insists the new deployment is not a case of mission creep, arguing the troops are enabling local forces, not directly engaging in combat.
But he has also not ruled out that the troops could come into direct combat with ISIS, noting Monday to PBS’s Charlie Rose that “as a general rule, their role is not to engage directly with the enemy but rather to work with local forces.”
The White House on Tuesday said Obama would consider sending even more special operations forces if the latest deployment proves to be successful.
“If this additional commitment of additional troops yields positive results … then that’s something the president would consider,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
The latest deployment will increase the official number of U.S. forces on the ground in Syria from 50 to 300, just as a cease-fire that reduced violence verges on collapsing.
The plan announced last week for 217 more troops to go to Iraq will bring the official number there to 4,087 troops. This does not include hundreds more U.S. soldiers not based in Iraq but who deploy there for short periods of time.
The White House also said Tuesday that there would be no “geographical limitations” on where the U.S. could send troops to fight ISIS, opening the door to sending more troops outside of Iraq and Syria.
Obama’s latest decision in Syria has won support from Democratic presidential candidates Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAttorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats urge Biden to commute sentences of 4K people on home confinement Briahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices MORE. Both have sough to highlight their ties to the president during the campaign.
“These special forces will continue to provide critical support to local forces on the ground who ultimately must be the ones to win this fight,” Clinton’s campaign said in a statement.
Sanders has repeatedly criticized Clinton for supporting the Iraq War, as well as U.S. intervention in Libya, but he voiced unequivocal support for Obama’s actions.
“I think what the president is talking about is having American troops training Muslim troops, helping to supply the military equipment they need, and I do support that effort,” he said Monday during an MSNBC town hall.
The Democratic drift toward deeper involvement is alarming progressives who have long argued Congress needs to debate the war and provide a new authorization for the use of military force against ISIS.
“These wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria are on remote control, and, quite frankly, it’s unconscionable that Congress, which has a constitutional responsibility, is sitting on its hands,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).
More hawkish Democrats are backing the president’s decision, arguing it is not a replay of Vietnam.
“One of the key points of decision in Vietnam was putting division-sized units in, in the mid-1960s, and then supporting them, and putting more in, etc. I think that’s a distinctive different approach than we’re adopting now,” said Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedTop Republican: General told senators he opposed Afghanistan withdrawal We have a plan that prioritizes Afghanistan's women — we're just not using it This week: Democrats kick off chaotic fall with Biden's agenda at stake MORE (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Republican hawks are also welcoming the use of more troops, but criticize the slow, incremental fashion the administration is using to do it.
“There’s no strategy; there’s begrudging incrementalism. We used to call it ‘mission creep.’ I’ve seen this movie before — it’s called Vietnam,” Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements MORE (R-Ariz.) told The Hill on Tuesday.
Lee and McGovern say debating a new authorization for the use of military force would help to clarify the strategy and avoid mission creep.
“Where is this all going? What’s our end game here? And how do you measure success?” asked McGovern, who also criticized Congress for not taking up a new authorization of military force bill.
Lee said the administration has made it very clear what its intentions are.
“Congress needs to do its job,” she said.
Jordan Fabian contributed.