Return of the Hawkish Democrat: Senator of NJ Menendez

The Saturday Interview


Hearing President Obama's call Wednesday night for an expanded American-led military campaign in Iraq and Syria, Robert Menendez thinks back to last year. The chairman of the SenateForeign Relations Committee, a Democrat from New Jersey, pushed in 2013 to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels and for U.S. airstrikes in Syria. He steered legislation through his committee to authorize these steps, but the White House got cold feet and the initiatives died. "Come full circle," he says, "that's where we're going to be today."

The other "full circles" here are impossible to miss. The president who was elected twice on a promise to end wars is leading America back into Iraq (just don't call it a war). And hawkish voices in the Democratic Party—once a vocal minority associated with the likes of Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Jeane Kirkpatrick that was smothered, some thought for good, by the antiwar insurgency of 2008—are speaking up. No less a Democratic eminence than Hillary Clinton, who ran the war-ending policy in the first Obama term, last month distanced herself from it.

Mr. Menendez's consistency leaves him less vulnerable to the charge of opportunism than other Democrats might face. On the Obama domestic agenda, the senator walks in Democratic lockstep. It's on big-ticket overseas issues—Iran, Russia, the Mideast—that he has stood apart from the party mainstream. A year ago barely a fifth of Americans backed airstrikes on the Assad regime in Syria. Sentiment has moved his way, with 61% in favor of the campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, according to this week's Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

Though a midterm election looms, Senate Democrats feel confident enough about public support that they're planning a vote in the coming days to back the administration's plans to arm and train the Syrian opposition. Mr. Menendez says the "temporary and targeted" airstrikes in Iraq and Syria fall under the president's powers as commander in chief.