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Sen. Murphy: U.S. 'Creeping Toward a Shooting War in the Middle East'

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) speaks at a news conference in the Capitol on June 6, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

WASHINGTON – Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) expressed concern that the U.S. is “creeping toward a shooting war” in the Middle East that will “surprise the heck out of Americans” if members of Congress do not begin to discuss America’s imminent foreign policy challenges with their constituents more often.

Murphy also said the Trump administration’s approval of a $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia makes it harder for the U.S. to deal with Iran’s ballistic missile program. The Senate voted in favor of the arms deal moving forward earlier this month.

The member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee revealed that the Democratic caucus “very rarely” discusses foreign policy issues at a “strategic level” and he hopes that changes soon.

Murphy said there are select “burning hot” issues, including the 2013 debate in Congress about intervening militarily in Syria, that have caused constituents to yell over to him at the grocery store.

“This is one of those issues, right, questions of war and peace, that aren’t on people’s mind until they are and then it is all of a sudden a dominating, all-consuming topic in this country. And that I think is the worry, that we are creeping toward a shooting war in the Middle East that is going to surprise the heck out of a lot of Americans when it happens,” Murphy said during a panel discussion last week at the Center for a New American Security annual conference “Navigating the Divide.”

“But once it does, and if we do get into a situation in which a handful of Americans have been killed and we are contemplating a massive retaliatory strike on Iran or on Russia, it will be all that we talk about as members of Congress, which is why we should be talking about it more with our constituents, talking about it more within our caucus so that we are ready for that moment if, God forbid, it happens,” he added.

Murphy said the Trump administration has “telegraphed” that they are going to “hang around” in Syria to “help our partners hold territory that is taken from ISIS.”

“If that’s the case, then you are previewing a very long confrontation between U.S. forces and Iran and Russia. So far, you haven’t gotten into a shooting war. We’ve shot at them, but they haven’t necessarily shot back with any U.S. casualties,” he said. “I worry that it’s just a matter of time, and it begs the question as to why Congress isn’t convening a process right now to decide whether or not we want to provide an authorization that I think is long overdue.”

In response to Murphy’s point, former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Trump administration is dealing with “inaction” from the Obama administration.

“This has been a long time coming. If we are going to deal with ISIS, we can’t just deal with the Iraqi side. They’re trying to have a strategy to also deal with ISIS and the Syrian piece of it. I hear what Sen. Murphy is saying in terms of the issues and the concerns that can arise,” she said.

“We’ve seen it with the recent activity with the drone shot down, but Iran’s support for the Assad regime has been undermining our efforts, I think, in many ways, with what we are trying to accomplish against ISIS as much as they say they are not doing that. We’ve seen the same thing at times with Russia as well,” she added.

Ayotte agreed with Murphy that Congress should vote on an authorization of military force but said the “political will” to get it done now does not seem to be “present” in the current Congress.

“I would love to see the Congress take up an AUMF and have the administration come to the Congress, working with them and say, ‘here’s our strategy of what we’re going to accomplish, what we need to do and what authority we need to do it.’ It has to go both hand-in-hand, but I don’t think the alternative is to say ‘we’re not going to do anything’ because they do have to deal with what is a real threat with what’s happening with ISIS. You can’t just stop it at the border,” she said.

During the panel discussion, Ayotte argued that Iran’s ballistic missile program should not have been left out of the nuclear deal, or JCPOA.

“We know Iran, by the way, will claim if we impose sanctions on ballistic missiles that that is a violation of the JCPOA. I still think, first of all, it’s not, even though they’ll claim it is, but I think it’s really important that if the administration stays in the JCPOA, which I don’t see a lot of action for them to get out right now at the moment, they get tough with them on this missile program, on their support for terrorism, on their human rights violations and that’s where I think the opportunity is,” she said.

Murphy described the agreement as “vitally necessary,” even though it did not directly address Iran’s ballistic missile program, human rights violations and terrorism support. Murphy said he thought the Iran nuclear deal was the right move because it shelved the possibility of a “nuclear militarized Iran” for the foreseeable future.

“To me, it was important to take that issue off of the table and they have complied with the agreement,” Murphy said. “I haven’t been a cheerleader of these new sanctions because I do worry about proportionality. We’ve given some pretty significant pre-endorsements to the president and I am hopeful he will use it in a way that doesn’t seek to intentionally unwind the nuclear agreement.”

Murphy said proponents of the nuclear deal knew there would have to be a bipartisan effort to crack down on Iran’s ballistic missile program at a later date.

“There’s no doubt that all of us that supported that agreement said that we were doing so in anticipation of the fact that we would come together later, Republicans and Democrats, to craft a new strategy to try to take on the ballistic missile program, to try to push back against their support for terrorism, and I think that’s what these sanctions can do if properly used by this administration,” he said.

“I think it’s important to realize that if you want this successful counter Iran strategy you do have to look outside the missile program. I think we’ve done some good things, the sanctions amongst them. I think the administration is taking a series of other steps that frankly are going to be detrimental in trying to keep Iran inside a box in the short- and medium-term,” he added.

Murphy was asked to expand on his criticism of the Trump administration’s approach to Iran so far.

“We talk about the ballistic missile program through the prism of Israel and it’s important to do that because that program does present an existential threat to Israel. But those missiles are pointed at Saudi Arabia, and to the extent that we are serious about trying to lessen the imperative that the Iranian’s feel to build up their ballistic missile program, then it’s probably not smart policy to be loading up the Saudis with more weapons than ever before,” the senator replied.

“We’ve sold more weapons, offensive weapons, to the Saudis over the course of the last 10 years than we did in our entire history of arms sales to the Saudis previous to 2008,” he added. “So my criticism of the pace of arms sales to the Saudis is certainly connected to the Yemen campaign, but it’s also connected to what I believe should be a broader strategy of recognizing that the Iranians are building missiles, in part, because of the pace of sales that we provide at Saudis.”