Approval of War Authorization Against ISIL Uncertain in Congress

Approval of War Authorization Against ISIL Uncertain in Congress
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President Obama asked Congress Wednesday to approve his administration’s military campaign to defeat Islamic State terrorists, although he believes failure by Congress to approve a resolution would have no practical repercussions, and lawmakers’ upcoming debate won’t alter the military strategy in place for the past six months.

Obama doesn’t need an OK from Congress “because the president believes that Congress has already given him this authority” in the Constitution, said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. While congressional affirmation of the air war against ISIL, also known as ISIS, and the return of thousands of U.S. troops and advisers to Iraq is not constitutionally necessary, Obama said it would be a welcome show of unity.

Obama’s draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force calls for a military campaign consisting of airstrikes and limited ground operations, but no large-scale invasions or occupation. Unlike America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, authorization for U.S. military action against the Islamic State would be limited to three years, with “enduring offensive ground operations” prohibited.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed the president needs to define what he means by “enduring,” but there will be vigorous disagreements about whether to constrain this commander-in-chief and his successor. On the topic of presidental powers, many Democrats sounded like Republicans, and many Republicans sounded liked Democrats. Democrats worried the AUMF is vague and gives the president too much power, while Republicans were concerned about limiting Obama’s power to fight ISIL – despite spending most of the this year criticizing him for executive overreach on immigration and implementation of the Affordable Care Act. 

“I believe that if we’re going to authorize the use of military force, the president should have all the tools necessary to win the fight that we are in,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a press conference.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is considering whether to seek the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, went even further, suggesting that the authorization should be as broad as possible. “I would say that there is a pretty simple authorization he could ask for and it would read one sentence: ‘We authorize the president to defeat and destroy ISIL.’ Period. And that’s what I think we should do,” Rubio said on the Senate floor. Other senators considered potential 2016 GOP contenders cautioned against giving the president sweeping authority.

So did Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

“I’m concerned about the breadth and vagueness of the ground troop language, the limitation against enduring offensive ground combat operations, suggesting that all defensive ground combat operations are okay,” Kaine said at a press conference. “Since everybody works for the Department of Defense, allowing defensive actions without any additional explanation is pretty broad.”

Many Democrats cited military authorizations passed under President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2002 as cause for concern when it comes to broad legislative language. They argued that those authorizations have since been used to justify military action beyond what was originally intended, and cautioned against allowing something similar to happen now. The 2001 authorization of force is part of the legal argument the White House has used to defend the campaign against ISIL. Obama asked Congress to leave in place the 2001 language, which dealt with al Qaeda, with possible refinements later.

“The executive branch’s reliance on the 2001 AUMF to justify such things as indefinite detentions and drone strikes far from Afghanistan has taught that Congress must carefully limit any authority it grants a president to engage in war,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement.

Though some members of Congress were calling for an authorization of military force against ISIL last summer, the can got kicked down the road for six months, with lawmakers hesitant to take such serious votes in the lead-up to the midterm elections. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, said he thought lack of congressional action set a dangerous precedent.  

“We were in this long dilemma where the leadership here in the Congress wanted the president to go first, the president wanted Congress to go first, meanwhile our troops had already gone,” Schiff said. “Congress was sitting on the sidelines. From my own point of view, it’s the Congress that really lost in that stalemate.”

Schiff called GOP campaigning for broader executive power on the war “deeply ironic.”

“Some of the same House and Senate members who are so critical of this so-called imperial president are ready to make him an imperial president when it comes to war-making,” Schiff said. “They’re happy to give him cart blanche.”

Two of the more hawkish senators, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both said they had problems with the lack of language concerning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Graham said he would not support a military authorization that does not protect Syrian rebels fighting Assad, while McCain said he thought the White House intentionally omitted Syria in its draft.

Asked what happens if Congress can’t find bipartisan agreement to pass an authorization of military force, Graham indicated that current war efforts would be preferable to passing an AUMF he does not agree with.

“My goal is to do no harm to the war effort,” Graham said. “Harm to the war effort would be passing an AUMF that restricts our ability to win and destroy ISIL.”

The president described his administration’s draft AUMF as a compromise document specific enough to constrain his running room, and yet flexible enough to adapt to changing events and conditions. He said the limitations sought for the remainder of his presidency and the outset of the next administration create no deadlines or timetables for the mission, and don’t tie his or any future president’s hands.

The administration believes it has latitude under a new authorization to insert U.S. intelligence agents on the ground, conduct rescue operations (as has already occurred in Syria), and deploy U.S. forces into dangerous territory to help call in airstrikes or advise Iraqi and other allied fighters.

Obama insisted the United States and its coalition partners are geographically containing ISIL’s advances, and killing its commanders. He recited statistics about airstrikes since August and targets struck. The president did not dissect, as upcoming hearings on Capitol Hill are expected to do, the instability injected by ISIL into the region, including in Yemen, the refugee crisis, or ISIL’s public-relations use of the U.S. offensive for recruitment and indoctrination purposes.

Obama offered no predictions about when “defeat” of well-financed ISIL fighters, who behead western and Muslim captives and reportedly crucify children for propaganda purposes, may be achieved.

“It’s going to take time to dislodge these terrorists, especially from urban areas,” the president conceded.

In his view, the threat of global violent extremism may be enduring – a word used in the AUMF draft -- but he believes U.S. combat operations, especially with U.S. troops on the ground, cannot be. Nonetheless, Obama’s account of achievements over six months was modest as he argued for “a systemic and sustained campaign of airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.”

The Pentagon has estimated the military effort is costing American taxpayers more than $8 million a day.

“The United States should not get dragged back into another prolonged ground war in the Middle East,” Obama repeated at the White House. “That’s not in our national security interest and it’s not necessary for us to defeat ISIL.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns contributed to this report.

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