Although the 2003 invasion of Iraq remains deeply unpopular in the United States, particularly among liberals, top congressional Democrats are backing President Barack Obama's decision to send 300 military advisors back to Iraq almost three years after declaring the war over.
Despite fears of mission creep and warnings from rank-and-file, anti-war Democrats, leading lawmakers, from Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to Adam Smith and Carl Levin, are supporting the president even though polls show Americans strongly oppose even a modest military presence in Iraq.
"I support the strategy that President Obama outlined yesterday," Michigan's Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters on Friday. "The decision to send a small number of U.S. military advisors is prudent."
Levin, like House Minority Leader Pelosi, voted against the 2002 Iraq war resolution and sharply opposed President George W. Bush's handling of the war. But both Democrats said President Obama's newly announced military advisors will help the Iraqi government defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which recently seized an alarming swath of territory in northern and central Iraq. "The United States has national security interests in Iraq," Levin said.
Senate Majority Leader Reid also backs the president. "This decision gives America the flexibility to take precise action against threats to our national security and keeps Iraqi authorities accountable for maintaining the security of their own country," he said on Thursday.
Smith of Washington state, the House Armed Services Committee's top Democrat, agreed that the United States should push for a political reconciliation between Iraq's Sunnis and its Shiite-led government. "President Obama is correct in pressuring the Iraqis to think beyond military action," he said. "There are no easy options but given the difficulties and what is at stake, the president's strategy balances these vital interests."
The 300 military advisors will "assess how we can best train, advise, and support Iraqi security forces going forward," according to the president's remarks Thursday. That support could eventually mean U.S. airstrikes against ISIS militants. Although Democratic leaders initially are supporting the president, their liberal colleagues cautioned against a more involved operation.
"It has to be limited in both scope and timed duration or the president needs to come to Congress for authorization," Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told reporters after leaving a closed-door briefing on Thursday.
"What we're doing here is sending our troops without any discernible strategy," said Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Rep. Barbara Lee of California introduced an amendment to a Defense appropriations bill on Thursday night that would prohibit funding for combat operations in Iraq. "We must not let history repeat itself in Iraq because the reality is there is no military solution in Iraq," she said. The amendment was soundly defeated.
Grayson also questioned whether the president has the authority to deploy military personnel without congressional approval -- a separation of powers issue on which some Republicans actually back the president.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on Thursday that in "an emergency-type situation that the president under his powers as commander in chief has the ability to address [this]."
He also applauded the president's initial steps. "What the president said today is a much better place to be than we were 24 hours ago," said Rubio.
Democrats across the ideological spectrum emphasized that the longer U.S. military personnel remain in Iraq, the more difficult it will be for the president's fellow Democrats to support him. "I think he has Article II authority to act to protect the national security of the United States in the short term," said Murphy. "But if he's proposing anything beyond a handful of weeks and months, he has to come back to Congress for new authority."