Democratic Senators Cautiously Behind Obama’s Plan For Iraq

“We have to think about what our national security interest is separate and apart from Iraq stabilizing itself as a country,” says Sen. Robert Menendez.

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Several Senate Democrats were cautiously supportive of President Obama’s announcement today that he would be sending up to 300 military advisers to assist the Iraqi military in the fight against ISIS forces.

Congress and the country has become increasingly weary of war and sharply skeptical of furthering the U.S involvement in Iraq, but Democrats appeared ready to support the president’s plan and his openness to targeted airstrikes at some point in the future.

“We have to think about what our national security interest is separate and apart from Iraq stabilizing itself as a country,” said New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Foreign Relations committee. “For me, that means ISIS is a national security threat to the United States and I appreciate that the president wants actionable intelligence before he considers specific strikes against them. I support strikes once they can determine what are our high value targets which would produce very low or no civilian causalities.”

Senators held a closed-door briefing on the situation in Iraq Thursday afternoon shortly after the president spoke. Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy called the briefing “incredibly sobering” and said says he and other skeptics may support a short-term military effort in Iraq.

Virginia’s Tim Kaine was one of the first members out with a statement on the president’s plan to send the additional military advisors a “prudent move.”

“I am encouraged that the president is dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to the Middle East to first try to improve political conditions in this challenging environment. The current situation in Iraq is ultimately a crisis of governance, which has allowed extremist groups to take advantage of disillusioned segments of the Iraqi population,” Kaine said. “I’m also pleased that additional measures are being taken to protect our embassies and personnel serving at diplomatic posts in Iraq. The announcement of additional military advisors and assets is a prudent move to assess the ISIL threat, and I look forward to continued close consultation with the administration on any potential military action.”

Kaine has been a proponent of changing the 9/11-era rules of war on terrorism, known as the Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

Obama emphasized Thursday there would not be a return to combat in Iraq, and called for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to work towards a more inclusive government, but did not say he should step down. Menendez also called on Maliki to do more to unite the religious factions of the country or he speculated “he may very well no longer be prime minister.”

“From my perspective unless Maliki can move to an all inclusive government which I have seen him to be incapable of, then this will be a continuing challenge for Iraq,” he said. “If people don’t think they have a stake in their country than they will not fight for their country and they will not feel a part of their country and therefore those who are extremist can take advantage of those sentiments. Maliki must do something immediately to show that that is the case or he may very well no longer be prime minister.”

Not everyone was supportive, however.

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said flatly, “I don’t support that,” when asked about the president’s announcement.

“I don’t support putting any more assets into that country,” he said.

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