Democrats Fear Another Military Quagmire

For many liberals, Obama's plan to fight ISIS brings back bad memories.

Kurdish Iraqi Peshmerga forces deploy their troops and armoured vehicles on the outskirts of the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, only 1 kilometre away from areas controlled by Sunni Muslim Jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on the main road between Kirkuk, Mosul and Baiji in northern Iraq on June 12, 2014. With ISIL's Islamist fighters closing in on the Iraqi capital Baghdad, forces from Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region took control of disputed northern oil hub of Kirkuk to protect it from Islamist attack, officials said.  (National Journal)

Congressional Democrats have seen this movie before: A years-long war on the other side of the world, with American forces committed against an ever-shifting enemy.

So if President Obama wants members of his own party to support his plan to combat the Islamic State, they say he'll need to prove it won't become another military quagmire like the ones in which the country has been mired for more than a decade.

"People are going to be very leery about anything that looks like a blank check to the executive because of the lessons of Iraq," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who was one of four House Democrats involved in White House discussions of an Authorization for the Use of Military Force. "What happened in Iraq should teach people the dangers of providing blank check authority."

Obama administration officials briefed House leaders and Senate Democrats Tuesday on the outlines of a proposed AUMF, which would last three years, limit "enduring offensive ground troops" and not place geographical limits on the fight. While most members are reserving judgment until an official proposal is presented, many expressed wariness that a plan without strict limits could be used to justify actions for which it was never intended.

"No one wants to get involved once again in a protracted war where we're fighting someone else's civil war," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. "We want to make sure that we have an exit strategy, and we know what we're doing to try to make sure that the good guys come out ahead. In this case, it's a very complicated fight."

The authorization could come as soon as Wednesday. Lawmakers are waiting to see if tweaks will be made based off the member feedback that has already been delivered to the White House.

"One of the most difficult things for us will be [examining] exactly what language puts into place the current president's commitment to not have a significant on-the-ground, enduring American combat presence in a way that would bind the next administration as well," said Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

It's a complicated fight made more complex by vague authorization language. For some Democrats, the term "no enduring offensive ground troops" may be too broad to ultimately embrace.

"I support the general framework," Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland said, "but I have significant questions. I don't know what the word 'enduring' means. I'm very apprehensive about a vague, foggy word, and enduring is not in the eyes of the beholder."

Rep. Adam Smith, ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, said Obama will have to convince Democrats that the AUMF "is not going to be too broadly interpreted and too broadly used," as they believe was the case with the 2001 authorization to combat Al Qaeda.

To do so, he suggested placing strict limitations in the plan. "It should have a time limit, it should be sunsetted. It should be geographically limited," he said, adding another restriction beyond what Obama has proposed. "And then the trickiest part is how do you limit it operationally. I am 100 percent opposed to a full-on U.S. combat operation. "¦ How do you draw that line? You can't say no boots on the ground because we've already got boots on the ground."

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said the AUMF could come before his chamber next month, and Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he expects it to come up for votes in "the next several weeks."

Meanwhile, the Congressional Progressive Caucus is in the midst of hammering out a version of an AUMF that its members can support. It's one that would likely describe the place, time, duration and permissible conduct—and would be unlikely to include boots on the ground, Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Keith Ellison said.

"I recognize the president is dealing with a difficult problem," Ellisonsaid. "You cannot ignore these homicidal maniacs, you can't do it. The question is how do you keep Americans safe and diminish the threat. And we have to think more broadly than just military action."

The key, said his co-chair, Rep. Raul Grijalva, will be ensuring other countries in the Middle East are taking responsibility. "There is a marked difference to us remaking a commitment to a land war which we lead—which hasn't proven to be the best strategy in two other places, Afghanistan and Iraq—versus being the supplemental support internationally," he said. "Arab nations have to lead the fight."

It's a path the United States has been down before.

"Now we're back in Iraq defending a lousy government," Rep. Jim McGovern said, "and I'm worried about us getting sucked back into a more significant ground war there."

And there's a level of frustration that Congress is back in a similar position where it's debating a similar answer, the Massachusetts Democrat said.

"I'm just frustrated with Congress in general that when it comes to dealing with these issues, there doesn't seem to be a lot of creativity," McGovern said. "It's the same old, same old. It's another AUMF, another war, more bombs, more ground troops and I don't think these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have done anything to enhance our national security."

Others were more optimistic that Congress and the White House can craft an AUMF that avoids past mistakes. "It's not going to be another Iraq war," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer. "There will be limitations in terms of scope. There will be very tight constraints in terms of boots on the ground."