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 ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottCBO: Pelosi bill to lower drug prices saves Medicare 5 billion Democrats divided on surprise medical bill fix NYC teacher suing DeVos over student loan forgiveness program 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 ClintonSanders: 'Outrageous' to suggest Gabbard 'is a foreign asset' Clinton attacks on Gabbard become flashpoint in presidential race Saagar Enjeti: Clinton remarks on Gabbard 'shows just how deep the rot in our system goes' MORE.

That coalition has since frayed.

Three of the senators who voted against the 2002 Iraq war authorization — Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats dig in ahead of Supreme Court ruling on 'Dreamers' Senate GOP braces for impeachment trial 'roller coaster' Trump judicial nominee delayed amid GOP pushback MORE (D-Ill.), Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerHillicon Valley: Ocasio-Cortez clashes with former Dem senator over gig worker bill | Software engineer indicted over Capital One breach | Lawmakers push Amazon to remove unsafe products Ocasio-Cortez blasts former Dem senator for helping Lyft fight gig worker bill Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE (D-Calif.) and Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Trump has had a rough October Senate Democrats want Warren to talk costs on 'Medicare for All' Democrats vow to push for repeal of other Trump rules after loss on power plant rollback 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 LevinRemembering leaders who put country above party Strange bedfellows oppose the filibuster Listen, learn and lead: Congressional newcomers should leave the extremist tactics at home 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 WelchDemocrats see John Bolton as potential star witness Democrats plow ahead as Trump seeks to hobble impeachment effort Democrats claim new momentum from intelligence watchdog testimony 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 UdallSenate fails to override Trump veto over emergency declaration Democratic senators condemn Trump for calling on China to investigate Bidens Green groups line up behind Markey ahead of looming Kennedy fight MORE (D-N.M.) and Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Trump has had a rough October Pelosi, Schumer hit 'flailing' Trump over 'sham ceasefire' deal Romney slams ceasefire deal, calls Trump's Syria move 'a bloodstain' in US history MORE (D-Conn.) have taken the lead on raising concerns after joining Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul confronted over 'Republican bullshit' in restaurant This week: Tensions flare over Schiff, impeachment inquiry Turkey sanctions face possible wall in GOP Senate 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.”