Members of the Shiite Muslim Mehdi Army militia take part in training June 17 in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. (Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The prospect of the U.S. military returning to the fight in Iraq has turned congressional hawks into doves.
Lawmakers who eagerly voted to authorize military force 12 years ago to oust Saddam Hussein and destroy weapons of mass destruction that were never found now harbor doubts that air strikes will turn back insurgents threatening Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government and Baghdad.
Fears of Mideast quagmire and weariness after a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan loom large for even those who talk tough on national security. More than 6,000 Americans died in those wars, which cost a trillion dollars.
As President Obama mulls his next step, there is little unanimity in Congress on what the United States should do despite some Republican voices — most notably Sen. John McCain — loudly calling for air strikes and stepped-up military action. The sectarian violence between the pro-government Shiites and Sunnis adds to congressional uncertainty.
Obama will discuss the situation in Iraq with House and Senate leaders of both parties at the White House Wednesday. State Department and Pentagon officials will hold closed-doors briefings with lawmakers over the next couple of days.
“Where will it lead and will that be the beginning or the end?” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said, when asked about air strikes. “We don’t know that. This underlying conflict has been going on 1,500 years between the Shias and the Sunnis and their allies. And I think whatever we do, it’s not going to go away.”
Shelby was one of the 77 Senate Republicans and Democrats who voted to give President George W. Bush the authority to wage war. Casting the strong bipartisan vote on Oct. 11, 2002, were Democratic Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Harry Reid of Nevada.
“After a decade of war, we’ve all had enough,” said Reid, the Senate majority leader.
“It was one of the worst votes I ever cast,” added Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, another who voted yes. Asked about what the vote means more than a decade later as the U.S. ponders intervention anew, Harkin said: “It is weighing heavily on my mind.”
But Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who also voted for use of force in 2002, said that vote would have no effect on her thinking this time. She declined to say if she supported military action. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, another Democrat who authorized military action in Iraq the last time, also wouldn’t give his opinion.
Senators of both parties appeared almost unanimous in their view that al-Maliki should leave power, even as many called for assistance to his government in battling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant insurgency.
ISIL has conquered several cities in Syria and Iraq. The administration is sending almost 300 American forces in and around Iraq to help secure U.S. assets.
“I support almost anything that would curtail” ISIL, said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. “That’s a very dangerous situation.”
McCain, who spoke by telephone over the weekend with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, said not many forces would be needed for an effective operation in Iraq and they’d only be for close air support. He said no combat troops are needed, but some personnel should be on the ground to identify targets for air strikes.
“That would be a handful of probably Special Forces, forward air controller people,” he said, expressing frustration that the administration hasn’t done more.
Among the newer senators, Mark Kirk, R-Ill., expressed support for air strikes, but Tim Scott, R-S.C., had his doubts.
“The president’s comments about he doesn’t know who to strike doesn’t give me ‘a warm and fuzzy,’” Scott said. “The option should remain on the table, but clarity should come first so that I can have an understanding and appreciation. If they don’t have an understanding and appreciation, I certainly don’t have one.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who voted for the war authorization in 2002, wanted to learn more about the administration’s plan.
“The question is whether air strikes can be targeted enough that they don’t kill innocent people,” she said.
The Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Obama must offer a strategy and act quickly to provide the Iraqi government with assistance before “every gain made by the U.S. and allied troops is lost.” He didn’t outline a specific course of action.