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Joan Vennochi: Moulton says Obama policy to blame for death of Iraqi officer

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Rep. Seth Moulton spoke on May 6 about his close friend, an Iraqi soldier killed by Isis.
Rep. Seth Moulton spoke on May 6 about his close friend, an Iraqi soldier killed by Isis.The Boston Globe

Even in Massachusetts, where politicians are known for speaking out against war, what US Representative Seth Moulton just did is unusual.

The freshman congressman and Marine veteran put a name and face to an Iraqi army lieutenant killed during a recent ISIS attack outside Mosul. And Moulton pinned the death of Iraqi Army Lieutenant Colonel Ehab Hashem Moshen directly to America's failure under President Obama to devise and execute a long-term plan for political stability in Iraq. Because of that failure, he said, troops are refighting the same battles they fought years before.

"Yesterday I lost my closest friend in the Iraqi Army to ISIS and our failed policy in Iraq," Moulton posted on Twitter last week, along with a photo of the two of them.

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In a follow-up interview, Moulton wasn't shy about blaming a sitting president from his own party for the policy failure. "If you ask troops on the ground, 'Where is this all going? What's our end game?' . . . they can't tell you," said Moulton.

The Harvard graduate said he knew what he was fighting for during four tours of duty in Iraq: “To build a democracy and create a stable, successful government so we could go home.” Now, he said, the military strategy to defeat ISIS is working, but the political goals are unclear. “I think the problem is the president just wants to be out of Iraq,” said Moulton. “I understand why he feels that way. A lot of Americans feel that way. But, he said, America needs more than short-term military force to keep order. It needs to help Iraqis sustain a stable government, and with it, the hope of long-term peace.

To that end, Moulton authored an amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act that would require the administration to submit reports on its political and military strategies to defeat ISIS. It was passed by the House Armed Services Committee, on which he serves, and the Foreign Affairs Committee, and according to Moulton, there's "a high probability" it will be voted on sometime in the next two weeks.

He's not the first from Massachusetts to question America's role in overseas conflict. Ted Kennedy spoke out against the Vietnam War as it escalated under Democrat Lyndon Johnson. With a Republican in the White House, John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, famously testified before Congress against that war. Most members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation voted against authorizing the Iraq invasion launched under George W. Bush, a Republican. But the delegation also gives Obama a tough time. Last November, US Representatives Jim McGovern and Joe Kennedy joined a bipartisan group of 35 lawmakers calling upon Congress to debate a resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria and Iraq.

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To some degree, Moulton fits the Massachusetts mold. But he also breaks it. He won election by challenging Democrat John Tierney, a nine-term incumbent, weakened by scandal connected to relatives of his wife. Up against Tierney's ultraliberal credentials, Moulton's military background also set him apart. He served as a special assistant to General David Petraeus and worked on counterinsurgency efforts in Baghdad during 2005 and the 2007 surge. He now calls the Iraq invasion a mistake, but believes we still owe Iraq a commitment to political stability.

Massachusetts Democrats don't usually rock one another's boats. So Moulton's willingness to take on Tierney made him an outsider. No one thinks his political ambition ends at the 6th district. He and Kennedy are already cast as rivals for promotion to the Senate.

Asked, however, about any calculation beyond fighting for better policy in Iraq, Moulton said, "I don't think of it politically. . . . We're talking about American lives, Iraqi lives, like my friend. . . . We owe it to the troops to send them into battle with a clear mission."

About that, he's right.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.