How times have changed. This was Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Tuscaloosa) in an interview with CNN on Oct. 4, 2002:
“Should we wait? If we wait, we wait at our peril. I think we should not wait. I believe the events of Sept. 11 a little over a year ago changed a lot of things like that. We used to have the privilege or opportunity to wait until somebody struck us. And some people argue that. We don’t have that today. I think we’ve got to go where the problems come from and we’ve got to preempt them. And that’s what the president is basically talking about.”
At the time, Shelby was the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and was out making the case for the United States to act in dismantling the threat of Saddam Hussein as the dictator of Iraq.
But today he is striking a different tone.
As Nouri al-Maliki’s government is in peril with the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a radical Islamic militia group on the march in Iraq, Shelby along with other Republican lawmakers who took hawkish tones in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq are reluctant for the United States to step in again.
“Where will it lead and will that be the beginning or the end?” Shelby asked rhetorically last week to the Associated Press. “We don’t know that. This underlying conflict has been going on 1,500 years between the Shias and the Sunnis and their allies. And I think whatever we do, it’s not going to go away.”
Shelby’s statement says as much about Shelby’s evolution as it does the direction of his political party.
Republicans learned the hard way in 2005 and 2006 how costly supporting military conflicts can be. In 2006 the GOP faced a shellacking in the midterms and lost control of the House of Representatives, after having held it for about a decade, since the 1994 Newt Gingrich revolution.
Still, there are some on the right, particularly in neocon circles, that see it as necessary for the United States to be more proactive in defending the current Iraqi regime against ISIS forces, despite a sectarian split in the country that seems to be fueling the violence.
There is one school of thought that suggests if the United States sits this one out, a number of dominos will begin to fall that will lead to a much larger conflict down the line. If ISIS continues on its path, it will lure the Iranians into Iraq to back the Maliki government.
Should Iran get a foothold in Iraq, suddenly they’re 430 miles closer to the United States’ biggest ally in the region, Israel, to which they have made many menacing gestures to over the past several decades.
If the Iranians wind up bolstering the current Iraqi government in order to keep Maliki in power, suddenly it’ll be much easier for Iran to act on those threats.
Also, there are weaker allied countries that also can be threatened by ISIS forces, including Kuwait, which the U.S. military has had to bail out once before, and Jordan. ISIS has made it clear that it seeks an Islamic caliphate, which seems to make the threat to Jordan or Kuwait seem to be an actual possibility.
Should either one either of those scenarios unfold, the Fortress America foreign policy tendencies won’t look all that good. Oil will skyrocket and the neocon chorus will grow louder and more sympathetic and thus the case for another costly war will be made.
Before Shelby and his colleagues completely dismiss U.S. involvement in Iraq this go-around, it would be smart to take stock of the American interests in the region and ask if authorizing President Barack Obama to order a handful of U.S. Air Force and CIA drone strikes would save us blood and treasure in the future.
Going back to the 2002 authorization, even with bipartisan support, then-President George W. Bush certainly didn’t do his party any favors. It became the wedge issue, which in combination with the faltering economy gave Obama his path to the White House.
If Obama comes to GOP leaders on Capitol Hill and he and his administration makes the case to fight a little now in order not to be forced to fight a lot later, it would be hard to say no.
Only Shelby, Sen. Jeff Sessions, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Haleyville) and outgoing Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Vestavia Hills) were in office for the 2002 Iraq vote for authorization. The lessons of that vote may not be as apparent to the other members.
But Shelby, his counterpart Sessions and the other members of Alabama’s congressional delegation shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss military action. Taking any options off the table, which Obama has already done by dismissing the possibility of ground troops, is not the way to handle a security crisis.
It may also seem politically tempting to oppose the Democratic president just to bolster the party. None of Alabama’s elected members however, with the possible exception of Paul DeMarco and Gary Palmer’s race for Alabama’s sixth congressional district seat, are going anywhere anytime soon.
If you’re all in this together, Republican and Democrat, whatever action is taken won’t be the political issue du jour that is used by the media and political operatives as it was in 2006.