President Obama's decision to send a small number of troops to Iraq is an awkward topic for Democrats these days.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who is leading Democratic efforts to keep control of the Senate, carefully dodged a Washington Examiner question about whether he supports Obama's decision to send 300 military advisors back to Iraq.
“I think that's a pretty broad question,” he said before hopping in a Senate subway.
He referred a follow-up question to his press secretary, Adam Bozzi, who later emailed to say the senator “believes this is a disturbing and complex situation and that we need to proceed very carefully.”
While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has forcefully argued against sending any military servicemen back to Iraq and re-engaging U.S. resources there in any major way, less prominent Democrats are trying to avoid definitive statements.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., was not as clear as Reid.
“There has to be a unity government before we even consider a military solution,” he said.
When asked what he thought of Obama's decision to re-engage in Iraq, Blumenthal said he disagreed with the premise of the question.
“I don't view it as re-engaging — I view it as protecting thousands of people who are in our embassy,” he said.
Both Bennet and Blumenthal were elected to the Senate long after the rancorous 2003 debate over the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq and the equally charged debate over whether to send a surge of troops there in 2007.
By the time either were running for Senate, the public had long grown weary of the Iraq war and the $1 trillion and 4,500 American lives it had cost.
Even before the surge, Americans wanted out of Iraq and a majority opposed sending in more troops. That feeling helped propel Obama to victory in 2008 and has remained consistent for years since. Obama's drawdown to zero troops in 2011 met little resistance among Americans.
But public feelings about Iraq and U.S. engagement have shifted in recent weeks as the al Qaeda-inspired extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria went on a rampage through northern Iraq, seizing control of major towns and resources and threatening to create a lawless Sunni-controlled expanse across the region.
Although Americans by wide margins are opposed to sending a large numbers of “boots on the ground” back to Iraq, a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted June 20-22 found more than half of those surveyed — 51 percent — favor Obama's decision to send about 300 military advisers to train and advise the Iraqi military and help them with the collection of intelligence. Forty-two percent opposed the decision.
The same poll found that a vast majority of Americans — 67 percent — don't believe Obama has clearly explained what his goals are in Iraq compared to 23 percent who believe he has clearly explained them.
Many Americans also are willing to support air strikes if necessary to stop the violence there, according to a HuffPost/YouGov released in mid-June. By a 48 to 30 percent margin, a plurality of respondents said they would support an air strike campaign while a 52 percent to 29 percent percent majority said they would support drone strikes.
Obama also has new reasons to worry about his foreign policy legacy. Faced with multiple international challenges, including in Iraq, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll also released in mid-June, found that just 37 percent approve of his handling of foreign policy, an all-time low in the survey, while 57 percent disapprove, an all-time high.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who chairs a subcommittee on Near Eastern, South and Central Asian Affairs, has called the addition of military advisers and assets in Iraq “a prudent move” to assess the ISIS threat but has urged Obama to continue to consult with Congress and seek their approval for any stepped up military role.
Kaine was an early supporter of Obama's in 2008 but has already endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. Clinton last week said she would have armed the moderate rebels in Syria earlier than Obama and generally seems more comfortable with U.S. intervention overseas -- so those factors may give Kaine more reasons to back Obama's new Iraq mission.
Other Democrats are having a more difficult time giving a wholehearted endorsement of Obama's plan so far.
“A good deal relies on the Iraqis themselves,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. “We can't be the world's policeman. Having said that, we don't want to have a radical, murderous cabal of folks exerting power over a great expanse of Iraq. But this should not fall on us. There is an opportunity for other countries in the region to play a role.”
When asked directly if he supports Obama's plan to send in a small number of military advisers, Carper said only: “I think it's a measured approach. I think it's probably appropriate. I don't think it's possible or smart for us to have a whole Congress -- 535 secretaries of state” questioning every difficult foreign-policy decision the president makes.
In April 2007, Carper voted in favor for funding the continued surge in Iraq, but he made a far different point in a speech on the Senate floor.
“So let us not debate whether Congress has a role to play in charting our course in Iraq,” he said. “And let us not kid ourselves that Congress can meet its responsibilities in this regard by continuing to rubber-stamp the decisions of the president.”