On Friday, July 25, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to put the brakes on the Obama White House’s potential decision to expand military involvement in Iraq.
In an unusual bipartisan vote of 370-40, with the cooperation of both the Republican and Democratic leadership, the House voted to bar the White House from sending U.S. troops to Iraq in a “sustained combat role” without congressional approval.
Democrats supported the motion 190-3; Republicans by 180-37.
That 90% of the House would support compromise legislation is about as rare as an ice sculpture on the Washington Mall in the middle of summer. It just doesn’t happen anymore in this era of congressional dysfunction.
The vote is a testament to the desire in both parties to avoid another long military intervention as in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is also a small step toward Congress trying to reclaim its war making authority largely abandoned since the 1941 declaration of war on Germany and Japan, although Congress did vote to authorize Iraq War I (1990-91) and Iraq War II (2003-2011).
Last month, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria made a series of territorial gains in Iraq, President Obama announced that 300 personnel would be sent to Iraq, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support, augmented by Apache attack helicopters and drones. A few days later, he announced that another 200 personnel were soon to be deployed.
On July 23, the Wall Street Journal reported that there are now 825 American military personnel soldiers in Iraq today.
As the United States knows from past, bitter experience in Vietnam, a small military engagement can escalate into a major military war that is disastrous for the United States. President Eisenhower started with only a few hundreds troops in Vietnam in the 1950’s and President Kennedy similarly started small in the 1960’s; the war became a poster child for incremental escalation.
Or, more recently, intervention in Libya dislodged Muammar Gaddafi, but left behind chaos that has led to American deaths and at least the temporary closing of our embassy.
Reps. Jim McGovern (D-MA), Walter Jones (R-NC) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) originally introduced a measure under the War Powers Resolution to force a vote on withdrawal from Iraq. The expectation was that the House GOP leadership would bring the measure up and vote to table or kill it.
But perhaps unsure about tabling the measure in light of strong opposition to new military intervention, the Speaker’s office initiated discussions with the sponsors and the Democratic leadership on a compromise. McGovern and his allies were willing to accept the requirement for a vote on a somewhat ambiguous “sustained combat role” rather than force of vote on any U.S. military involvement that could have shoved aside on a procedural vote.
Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the Chairman, Committee on Foreign Affairs and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), ranking member of the committee, joined in the negotiations and endorsed the compromise in a Dear Colleague letter to other Members of Congress and both spoke in favor of the revised measure. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) also spoke for the compromise.
McGovern captured the moment most graphically: “The time to debate our re-engagement in Iraq, should it come to that, is before we are caught in the heat of the moment. Not when the first body bags come home. Not when the first bombs start to fall. Not when the worst-case scenario is playing out on our TV screens.”
Despite the unhappiness among neo-conservatives, the House was not voting for isolationism. It was instead rejecting the all-too-frequent resort to military intervention by Presidents of both parties that has so often resulted in disaster.