WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s lethal return to Iraq will test a public resolve depleted by the past decade of war.
Interviews, instant polling and the social media fire hose following the U.S. airstrikes Friday revealed deep ambivalence in a country already weary of Iraq. Certainly, the public is taking notice. By mid-Friday, four of the top 10 trending keywords on Twitter dealt with the Iraq crisis.
There’s no consensus, but there are impressions. One is, President Barack Obama has room to maneuver, because Congress appears sympathetic for now. Another impression is, the reservoir of public support could be exhausted quickly in the face of a religiously motivated enemy.
“It’s concerning that we’re opening wounds that we’ve already closed,” the mother of a Wichita, Kan., soldier who was killed in 2005 said Friday
She was so upset about the United States fighting again in Iraq that she didn’t want her name used: “I can see what’s going on over there. I don’t think our presence will make any lasting impact.”
The re-entry into Iraq has been unsettling for veterans, as well, said Moeed Ishrat, an Iraq war veteran and now director of outreach at Operation Sacred Trust, a Florida organization that helps homeless veterans find housing.
“This makes me uncomfortable, uneasy,” Ishrat said. “It reminds you of your brothers that didn’t come back.”
More than seven years have passed since Sgt. Ian Anderson, the 22-year-old son of Elaine Anderson-Frazier of Overland Park, Kan., was killed by a roadside bomb near Mosul trying to bring stability to Iraq.
“This is something I have to do, Mom,” she recalled him telling her when he left high school to enlist.
Today, his mother, 58 and a nurse at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., finds herself filled with conflicting emotions and thoughts.
“I know that our forces going over there is important,” said Anderson-Frazier. “Global peace is in my heart. I don’t want any mother to lose their child.”
Various Capitol Hill lawmakers who represent the troubled voices heard around the country generally applauded the bombing of forces associated with the Islamic State.
“It takes an army to defeat an army, and I believe that we either confront (the jihadists) now or we will be forced to deal with an even stronger enemy in the future,” declared Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Inaction is no longer an option.”
Another Democrat, Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, called the bombing “a prudent decision intended to protect American interests,” while Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he supported the bombing and a “coordinated military strategy.”
“Longer we wait, worse the situation becomes,” Graham said via Twitter.
Tellingly, the congressional support included lawmakers with their eyes on a potential 2016 White House bid, such as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who declared via Twitter that the bombing was “the right decision.” The congressional sentiment was markedly different from the widespread opposition voiced last year when Obama proposed bombing Syria and many, like Rubio, voted against authorizing it.
Even with legislative support across party lines, Obama is caught in a strategic straitjacket, tightened by a public fatigue with Iraq that limits his willingness to commit forces. Fifty-five percent of U.S. residents surveyed in July said the United States does not have a responsibility to stop Iraq’s continuing violence, according to the Pew Research Center.
“Just even talking about Iraq right now is exhausting,” said Mississippi resident Alec Banks Jr., who spent two tours with the Marine Corps in Iraq. “It brings back some of the worst memories.”
Fifty-seven percent of U.S. residents surveyed in June said the George W. Bush administration’s original invasion of Iraq was a mistake, according to the Gallup Poll.
“I think this is a little late,” said Joe Daigle, from Harker Heights, Texas, near sprawling Fort Hood. “Obama made a speech a couple of months ago about how it was none of our business. Now we ‘need to get involved.’ I don’t understand that.”
The original Iraq war and occupation cost the United States more than $800 billion through 2011, according to the authoritative Congressional Research Service. Long-term costs of the war, including medical care for traumatized veterans and interest payments, will come to several trillion dollars, according to various estimates.
Through February 2013, 4,409 U.S. military personnel were killed and 31,925 service members were wounded in action in Iraq. One of the soldiers killed was Army Sgt. Alex Funcheon, of Bel Aire, Kan. He died in 2007 when a roadside bomb ripped through his Humvee.
“I’m really believing Alex’s death was in vain, just like the guys from Vietnam and probably from Korea,” Alex’s father, Bob Funcheon, said Friday. “If we’re going to get involved, we need to go in there and take care of business completely.”
Obama, though, stressed in his statement Thursday that he “will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq” and that “American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq.”
The Navy F/A-18 strike fighters that have been bombing the jihadists’ positions have been in Iraqi airspace. The difference, important both to Obama and to some of those supportive of his latest actions, is between fighting from a safer distance and putting the proverbial boots on the ground.
“We destabilized the country and now we have the responsibility of re-stabilizing it,” said retired Air Force Col. Kim Olson, who served in Iraq in 2003 and now lives in Mineral Wells, Texas, near Fort Worth. “But I feel confident saying most veterans do not want to re-invade Iraq. At some point you have to let the people who have to live there deal with the situation.”
Charlie Vickers, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., resident who served with the Marines in Iraq in 2003, said he is “very disappointed” in Iraq’s deterioration, but he says there are limits to what the United States should do.
“My personal belief,” Vickers said, is “to get out of there and let them slug it out.”
Mitch Mitchell and Anna Tinsley of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Rick Plumlee of The Wichita Eagle; Amy Driscoll and Rochelle Koff of The Miami Herald; Patrick Ochs of the Sun Herald of Biloxi, Miss.; and Eric Adler and Crystal Thomas of The Kansas City Star contributed to this report.