WASHINGTON -- For weeks, Capitol Hill has watched U.S. military engagement in Iraq with quiet unease: Democrats and Republicans warily backed President Barack Obama’s limited airstrikes against Sunni militants, but nobody - aside from Sen. John McCain and a few fellow hawks - demonstrated an appetite for deeper involvement.
Now, though, the gruesome execution of American journalist James Foley has drawn a raw, emotional reaction from lawmakers in both parties, with many issuing statements condemning the Islamic State, the group responsible for Foley’s killing, and some urging Obama to redouble the fight against it.
There were signs Thursday that the Obama administration is weighing that, with the White House and the Pentagon refusing to rule out military action against the group in Syria. But far from satisfying Congress, a wider conflict could put lawmakers, particularly Democrats, in a difficult position, since most deeply oppose any new war in the Middle East.
“Most Democrats and Republicans are extraordinarily wary of being sucked into a large occupation, both because it will kill a lot of Americans and because we saw in Iraq the last time that it didn’t work,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Schiff was among those who expressed horror at Foley’s killing, saying, “Seldom is the descriptor 'evil’ applied with perfect accuracy as it is with this monstrous group.”
His fellow California Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has called for “coordinated and sustained action” to defeat the militants. “Only then can we reverse ISIL’s rise and eliminate this very dangerous terrorist threat,” she said, using an alternative name for the group.
A growing number of Republicans are criticizing Obama for not doing more. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said, “President Obama continues to appear unwilling to do what is necessary to confront ISIL and communicate clearly to the American people about the threat ISIL poses to our country and to our way of life.”
Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said: “The president’s current path of action has been far too limited to make a difference. We must do what is necessary to eliminate ISIS, protect the innocent, and keep Americans safe.” He used another name for the Islamic State.
But few of these Republicans have laid out exactly what they want Obama to do to intensify the battle. Even conducting airstrikes in Syria would be a politically fraught step.
The last time the president sought to put military action in Syria to a congressional vote - a missile strike after Syria’s chemical weapons attacks last year - he faced an overwhelming defeat that he avoided only by seizing on an alternative Russian diplomatic proposal.
Little has changed in Congress since, even if a vote to use military action in response to an attack on Americans would naturally draw more support than intervening in a distant civil war.
“This horrendous event has got a lot of folks in Congress talking,” Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said of Foley’s killing, “but it doesn’t give us a license to ignore the lessons of George W. Bush in Iraq.”
Schiff said he was concerned that the White House had already broadened the mission beyond the limited purposes outlined by Obama two weeks ago - conducting airstrikes to support Iraqi forces in recapturing the Mosul Dam, for example.
On Thursday, a day after disclosing that the Pentagon had mounted a fruitless rescue operation in Syria for Foley and other U.S. hostages, the White House indicated it would not rule out further military action in Syria if there was a threat to Americans.
“We would not restrict ourselves by geographic boundaries when it comes to the core mission of U.S. foreign policy, which is the protection of our people,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said in an interview with NPR.
Some Republicans aimed their fire at the administration’s disclosure of the raid. McCain suggested that the White House was trying to reap credit for helping the hostages, while Rep. Howard McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called for an investigation into who leaked it.
Even before Foley’s killing, some analysts argued that the drumbeat of criticism from neoconservatives had accelerated the momentum toward military action, as evidenced by the president’s decision last month to send 300 military advisers to Iraq.
“Obama himself is pretty good in resisting those pressures, but not completely,” said Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School.
For his part, the president did not signal a shift in his strategy, even as he condemned the militants who killed Foley for having no “ideology of any value to human beings.”
“The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people,” Obama said. “We will be vigilant and we will be relentless. When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.”
Analysts said that while Foley’s death dramatized the murderous intent of the militants - and brought the conflict much closer to home than a threat to an unfamiliar religious minority like the Yazidi - it did not remove the hurdles to a more widespread military campaign.
“I just don’t see it rising to a casus belli - or at least as a cause for a much larger military effort,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It is awful and it should remind us of who we are dealing with, and not have any illusions about that. But the political and military realities of Iraq and Syria remain unchanged.”
Those realities, Pollack said, are that the U.S. needs a reliable military partner in Iraq, a development that is not likely to occur without a new national government that surmounts the country’s sectarian rifts. In Syria, where Obama has grudgingly provided nonlethal aid to moderate rebels but otherwise avoided military intervention, it would require a fundamental shift to a strategy he has followed for two years.
“I don’t think Barack Obama is going to shift gears despite bipartisan demands,” Pollack said, “and I am not convinced that the Foley killing is a reason to do so.”