If President Obama harbored any hopes that his decision to deploy special operations forces to Syria might draw support from his birth-state federal delegation, the unified opposition he heard instead must have been a disappointment, though likely not a surprise.

Sen. Brian Schatz emerged Friday as one of the most direct and widely sourced Democratic critics on Capitol Hill, characterizing the president’s decision as a “strategic mistake,” one that is “unlikely to succeed in achieving our objective of defeating ISIL and instead threatens to embroil the United States in Syria’s civil war.”

He joined colleague Rep. Mark Takai in criticizing the president for making the decision without congressional input or a vetting of the Authorization for Use of Military Force.

“We cannot let ourselves engage in another Middle East conflict with no clear end, under a law that was enacted 14 years ago,” said Takai in a statement. “Before we commit any additional resources to the Middle East, there needs to be clarity as to the role the United States will be playing.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest discusses President Obama's deployment of a small number of military advisers to Syria at a Friday briefing.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest discusses President Obama’s deployment of military advisers to Syria at a Friday briefing. Via YouTube

Sen. Mazie Hirono called on the president to make public further details on how the deployment fits into a broader strategy and, like Takai and Schatz, raised the need for additional congressional authority for efforts to fight the Islamic State. She also wants to hold the president to earlier promises regarding boots on the ground.

“In our effort to degrade and destroy ISIL, the President has reiterated that it is not in our national interest to send U.S. combat troops into yet another ground war in the Middle East,” said Hirono in a statement. “I agree, and as a member of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, I will hold the Administration to that commitment.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a frequent critic of the Obama administration’s military policies, was scheduled to appear as the lead guest on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” live on Friday at 4 p.m. (10 p.m. EST). But her recent comments left little doubt as to how she’d react to the deployment: Only days ago, she told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer there is “no reason for (U.S. military personnel) to go and to be deployed into these situations” in Syria.

Military actions being taken against the Islamic State now are being pursued under the 2001 and 2002 AUMF, which authorized use of military force against Iraq. Their use in pursuing broader goals in the Middle East goes back to the George W. Bush administration. Obama submitted a proposed new AUMF in February, but under House Speaker John Boehner, Congress failed to take up the authorization.

Up to 50 Special Operations advisers, who will not take part in direct combat, are expected to comprise the new deployment, which the White House described as “an intensification of a strategy that the president announced more than a year ago.”

Schatz was unconvinced.

Senator Brian Schatz photographed during interview. 26 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/CIvil Beat
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz emerged Friday as one of the most widely sourced critics of the administration’s decision to send a small number of troops to Syria. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Syria is one of the most dangerous environments on the planet. In addition to ISIL, multiple Syrian opposition groups, and Assad forces ‎that have been embroiled in a multi-year civil war, you now have active Russian involvement as well as Iranian forces and their proxies operating in this volatile area,” Schatz wrote in an e-mail to Civil Beat. “To suggest that Special Operations Forces that are deployed with opposition forces in Syria won’t be in a combat mission is a misrepresentation of the reality that they face.

“They will be in harm’s way, and this escalation is a major shift in policy from the President’s earlier commitment not to put boots on the ground in Syria.”

Schatz and Hirono were hardly alone among Senate Democrats in such criticisms. Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who along with Schatz earned notoriety over the summer for a Foreign Affairs piece outlining eight “power principles” that could serve as new guideposts for U.S. foreign policy, were equally critical.

Murphy described it as a “potentially dangerous downward slope into a civil war with no end in sight,” while Heinrich called the White House’s intensification of strategy a “classic example of mission creep,” pushing the U.S. closer to the “front lines of a military conflict that has yet to be explicitly authorized by Congress.”

Others in Congress were critical from the opposite point of view. Sen. John McCain, for instance, is among those who would like to see the White House go much further with ground troop involvement. He called the small deployment of advisers “another insufficient step in the Obama administration’s policy of gradual escalation.”

Schatz believes a political solution to end the Syrian crisis is possible, but that it must involve all regional stakeholders.

“Only then will we eliminate the conditions that helped give rise to ISIL in the region. Secretary Kerry’s efforts in Vienna this week represent a good first step,” Schatz said. “Escalating our military involvement threatens to foreclose future political solutions if they do not align with our strategic interests.”

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