U.S. air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant near the Kurdish capital of Irbil on Friday mark the first combat operations in the country since the Iraq war ended in 2011.
Many Iraq veterans in Congress, who have an intimate understanding of the gravity of President Barack Obama’s decision to authorize the use of military force in Iraq, expressed their support for the strikes, as well as a humanitarian mission to drop aid to thousands of Iraqis stranded on a mountain near Sinjar. Even lawmakers who initially urged caution about the use of U.S. military force to counter ISIL are now urging Obama to do more — but not by military means alone.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a pilot who lost both her legs when her Blackhawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq in 2004, supports Obama’s targeted air strikes and humanitarian airdrops in Iraq. But she urged Obama to consult Congress for a long-term solution.
“Even though these air strikes were necessary, these actions alone will not end the crisis in Iraq,” she said. “The long-term solution must be a political solution, not a military one. I encourage President Obama to return to Congress and begin the discussion of the steps we need to take to stabilize Iraq.”
Before the August recess, 80 lawmakers from both parties signed a letter urging Obama to notify Congress before any use of military force in Iraq. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday that members of Obama’s national security team are in contact with congressional leadership and members of the Intelligence, Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Appropriations Committees from both chambers about the decision to conduct airdrops and air strikes. And as the military conducted several bombings in northern Iraq on Friday, Obama sent Congress a War Powers Resolution letter authorizing the use of military force in Iraq.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., who served as a chaplain in Iraq in 2008, said he supports air strikes to protect U.S. personnel and facilities, but doesn’t believe they will defeat ISIL. He noted that Obama framed the air strikes as a defensive option.
Collins told Defense One in June, when ISIL fighters took Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, that air strikes are “a temporary solution to a long-term problem.” On Friday, he repeated those concerns. “If air strikes were the end-all, be-all, there would be no more al-Qaeda. You can take out leadership, but a new head will grow.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who deployed north of Baghdad in 2005 as a medical operations specialist, has strongly opposed military action to address the crisis in Iraq. “What is being proposed with air strikes in Iraq, not only will they not be effective, they will actually be counter-productive,” Gabbard said in June. “We have to make sure the actions that we take are strategic, precise, and in the end achieving that objective of keeping America safe. It is irresponsible for those who are proposing air strikes just because we have to do something … it’s really deceiving the American people.”
But after the military hit ISIL targets on Friday, Gabbard told CNN that the U.S. response should be “overwhelming” and deal a “direct blow.”
In June, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said Obama should sign a new Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, address Syria’s war, authorize air strikes and mix U.S. special forces in with the Iraqi military. “When all the bad guys were lined up on the road in the middle of nowhere, that was a pretty good time for a military strike,” said Hunter, a Marine who saw some of the heaviest fighting in the Iraq War in Fallujah in 2004. “But this administration moves at a snail’s pace, and it’s probably too late. The courses of actions get whittled down the longer he takes to act.”
On Friday, Hunter said the president made “the right call” in authorizing strikes, but the direness of the situation was of his own making. “When the decision was made not to leave in place a residual force, we lost our eyes and ears on the ground. A vacuum was created and ISIL filled it,” he said. “We have the capability, but the president will have to ratchet up the pressure to have an impact that will force ISIL to reverse course. Is he willing to do that?”
”The president did what any commander-in-chief should in confronting the Iraq situation — hopefully he sees the right decision isn’t always the most politically expedient,” he said.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a military pilot who has flown missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said in June that while the U.S. should push for political reconciliation with Iraq’s government, it should not wait to take military action. “Significant, robust strikes is gonna be our best chance,” he said.
On Friday, Kinzinger said he is “cautiously optimistic.”
“I think it’s the right move to do something,” he said. “I think the president has a hard time accepting his role in selling this to the American people, but he’s got to go after the entire organization, and I still think that means a robust air campaign in Iraq, in Syria — put ‘em on their heels.”
“If we limit it to just saving these people on the mountain, which is noble and good, if we limit it to just protecting Americans, or if we limit it to just protecting the Kurds, these kind of situations are going to keep popping up until the organization is destroyed. We’re going to keep going from mini-crisis to mini-crisis, when the overall crisis is the existence of this group,” he said.
“You always have concerns about things expanding, but the reality is we can’t choose the world we live in.”
Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., the first and only Iraq War veteran in the Senate, who just dropped his bid to keep his seat in the wake of a plagiarism scandal, couldn’t be reached for comment. But in June, Walsh released a short statement: “It is time for Iraq to take responsibility for its own national security. Our military mission there should be over.”