Iraq Syndrome

Some senators support Obama’s campaign against ISIS. Others refuse to fall for the hype of another war.  

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Sen. Bernie Sanders awaits the start of a hearing on Sept. 9, 2014, in Washington.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Twelve years ago, when the Bush administration needed Democrats to back a resolution authorizing war in Iraq, Sen. Bill Nelson signed up. The Florida Democrat was in his first term, with no real threat to his re-election—he ended up steamrolling Katherine Harris four years later. Still, he’d listened to the Bush administration’s case for war, and it seemed plenty convincing.

“The threat posed by Iraq grows with each passing day,” Nelson said on the floor of the Senate. “And since Sept. 11, 2001, we cannot wait to protect ourselves against the threats of weapons of mass destruction, regimes hostile to the United States, and their links to terrorism.”

History has not been kind to Nelson’s prediction. By 2007, he was part of the stampede of Democrats who regretted their 2002 votes, loudly, into microphones. In 2011, as American troops left Iraq, Nelson fretted that “you can start to see the influence of Iran in Iraq” as a result of a misbegotten American war.

Then came ISIS. On Aug. 19, after American airstrikes ended their control of the Mosul Dam, ISIS, also known as the Islamic State or ISIL, released a video of captured American journalist James Foley being beheaded by a thug with a British accent. Two weeks later, Nelson introduced legislation that could authorize more airstrikes, this time on Syria. On Tuesday, as Congress returned to work and waited for a presidential address on the crisis, Nelson told reporters that the president could expect any tools he asked for.

“I don’t think there’s any timetable on what the president can do to protect Americans,” Nelson said. “All you need to do is see the videos of the beheading, and then you’re not worried about mission creep.”

A small circle of reporters asked Nelson to explain. How far would he go? “I will support whatever it takes in my judgment to go in there and knock these guys out,” he said. “All they need to do is see the videos of the beheadings, and there is no question in your mind that these guys will not stop until the black flag of ISIS is flying over the White House. They are a threat to America and Americans.”

Would airstrikes make a “hard vote” for “war-weary” Democrats? “It’s not a hard vote for me,” said Nelson. “All they have to do is see the videos. Then it’s not a hard vote.”

The politics of this month’s ISIS panic could not be more different than the politics of 2002. President George W. Bush’s administration badly wanted to end Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and described the push for it as the “marketing campaign” for a “new product.” President Barack Obama’s administration, which celebrated the departure of American troops from Iraq, has been waging an air war on ISIS but struggling for ways to explain it. The terror state has not struggled at all. Its propaganda and social media campaigns have gotten results. This week, a CNN poll asked if the group already has terrorists operating in the United States; 71 percent of Americans, with no earthly idea if this was true, assumed it was.

That meant that Congress returned from a monthlong recess with a choice, informed by years of regret and doubt, with ISIS being hyped as an existential threat to America. Those in tight races, Republicans especially, were portraying ISIS as an imminent threat to America. When asked if he agreed with that, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake—who voted for the 2002 war as a congressman—argued that “we’ve already had two beheadings, maybe more.”

But the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff didn’t happen in America. They happened in Iraq, site of countless ISIS murders. When pressed, Flake admitted that the 2002 Iraq experience raised doubts about the credibility of the people who’d argued for military action. “You’ve got to go to more than just one source and glean what you can from our own intelligence sources, from our allies in the region,” he said. “You don’t want to intervene just to carry somebody’s water.”

Senators who’d opposed the 2002 vote, all of them Democrats, had been trying to say this for years. “We were ‘strong’ and ‘tough’ under Bush and Cheney,” said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucused with the Democrats in the House, then the upper house. “We made the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of the United States. We don’t want to do that again.”

“It’s fear-mongering,” Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin told the Huffington Post. “It’s what happened after 9/11. ‘Oh my God, they’ve got these planes crashing. Now they’re going to take over America.’ That’s nonsense. We overreacted to 9/11.”

Sanders has talked about running a progressive campaign for president; Harkin is retiring this year. They were immune to the quickening panic about trouble in Iraq spreading to America, but if some colleagues shared their skepticism, few were as sanguine about the new villains. On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain (not the quietest of the hawks) asked Homeland Security Undersecretary Francis Taylor about rumors of ISIS trying to sneak across the border. “There have been Twitter and social media exchanges among ISIL adherents across the globe speaking about that as a possibility,” Taylor said.

The point was that they weren’t pulling it off and were dumb enough to raise the possibility in public. The point might have been lost, as the ISIS-on-the-border story had bubbled up on conservative media, and ACORN stinger James O’Keefe waged a stunt to prove that ISIS agents could carry Ebola into the United States from Canada.

Maybe the panic is inevitable. The politicians who bucked the 2002 Iraq War vote hoped, at least, that a new intervention could be handled less disastrously. Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, who’s also retiring this year, talked about the possibility of a military authorization—pending the president’s Wednesday speech—as a chance to undo the damage of Iraq. ISIS was a more unpredictable and reckless force in the Middle East than the 2002 version of Saddam Hussein. Congress was more unified than it was then. Maybe a vote, eventually, would be good for the cause.

“Our military deserve it, and frankly, it’ll help the president attract support of Arab and Muslim countries if they see strength and unity here, and not partisan and political division in the Congress,” said Levin. “ISIL should help unify the world, for God’s sake, and unify the Muslim world to take on this poison in their body. This is an opportunity, where you’ve got a vicious, poisonous environment, to unify the world against them.”

It sounded like Levin was imagining that a war on ISIS could recreate the unity felt briefly by the civilized world after 9/11. But it was difficult to forget the reason that unity collapsed.

“Those of us associated with the Bush administration bear the burden of having launched a war on false premises that then yielded disappointing results,” wrote David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter, in a column for the Atlantic. “It’s a heavy responsibility, and one most of us have struggled with in our various ways. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of it.”