War Authorization Puts Spotlight on 2016 Hopefuls

War Authorization Puts Spotlight on 2016 Hopefuls
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In asking lawmakers Wednesday for a three-year authorization of war against the Islamic State, President Obama acknowledged that the next president will inherit the parameters agreed upon by this Congress.  

The move thus ensured that the protracted debate on Capitol Hill over the delicate issue of war will become a significant component of the 2016 presidential primaries. 

Foreign policy had been creeping into the race, due to the confluence of an improving economy, and escalating tensions and terrorist threats abroad. This week, the White House confirmed the death of a young American ISIS hostage, Kayla Mueller. Now, the U.S. response to those developments figures to be a key campaign issue. 

Numerous Republicans are thinking about seeking the Oval Office, but only four are currently in the Senate and will thus have to eventually vote on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. The White House has said it doesn’t necessarily need approval from Congress to continue with its military mission against ISIS, but legislative buy-in would help show a united front. 

Many lawmakers, including those eyeing the presidency, have been calling for Congress to officially weigh in. But a vote to wage war is especially risky in a presidential cycle. Not only does it expose divisions within both parties, it also can damage a candidate’s prospects, depending on how the war goes and how the public ultimately views it.  Just ask 2008 candidate Hillary Clinton, whose 2002 vote to approve the Iraq War was part of her undoing. Candidates have to weigh whether a failed mission or a failure to respond to national security threats has greater consequences.  

The stakes may not be as high this time, however. The president assured the public and lawmakers alike Wednesday that “the resolution we’ve submitted today does not call for the deployment of U.S. ground combat forces to Iraq or Syria.”   

It could be a while before Congress officially weighs in with a vote. But the issue quickly put a spotlight on Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham. The AUMF request gives them an opportunity to show their foreign policy credentials in a way that governors in the presidential field can’t. But the risks involved are significant.

That’s partly why Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declined to comment on the president’s request for military force. When asked about it while on a trade mission to London on Wednesday, Walker declined to comment, saying he would not enter the conversation while on foreign soil out of respect for the president.  

On ABC last month, Walker stumbled a bit when questioned on the same issue before finally saying he wouldn't rule anything out, including U.S. boots on the ground in Syria. 

The last time Congress officially engaged in the debate about the war against ISIS was in September, when lawmakers voted on whether to arm the Syrian rebels. Paul and Cruz both voted against it, while Rubio and Graham supported it.  

The libertarian-leaning Paul stands out from the group on most foreign policy issues -- he and Rubio engaged in a public spat over the administration’s new Cuba policy. They have differences here, too.  

Paul has maintained that the current war on ISIS is illegal without authorization from Congress. The Kentucky senator wants Congress to weigh in, but he also advocates for geographical limits, worried that the next president might have too much leeway to intervene in other areas of the world.  

Graham and Rubio also seem concerned about the breadth of any authorization, but in the opposite direction -- that it might not go far enough. On the Senate floor Wednesday, Rubio said:  “I would say that there is a pretty simple authorization [the president] could ask for and it would read one sentence, and that is: ‘We authorize the president to defeat and destroy ISIL.’ Period.” 

Another element of the debate involves ground troops and the arming of other nations’ (and factions’) fighters. 

In December, Paul introduced a measure declaring war on ISIS and, interestingly, limiting U.S. military presence in that war. On Fox News Wednesday, he said he wants the president to organize coalition forces to fight ISIS on the ground, and directly arm Kurds by transferring weapons from Afghanistan. He said Jordanians need to be part of the war. But he has not yet said that he would support the president’s AUMF.  

Graham, whose potential White House bid is rooted in his experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and interest in influencing the foreign policy debate, has advocated for group troops and broad parameters for authorization. But he is not yet supportive of the administration’s request, as he remains concerned about its limitations on confronting Syria’s dictator, which he sees as necessary to fight ISIS.

The staunch conservative Cruz has been more reluctant to support ground troops, saying he would agree only if necessary. And like Paul, he agreed with the goal of arming the Kurds and coalition forces.  

Speaking Wednesday to reporters on Capitol Hill, Cruz expressed support for Obama’s request for congressional authorization, though he wished the president had done so sooner. The Texas senator said it was still unclear what the administration hopes to achieve.  

“If you’re asking for authorization to do something, you have to specify what it is you have to do and how you have to accomplish it,” he said. “I think that is beneficial because we have seen so far a rudderless and ineffective strategy to deal with ISIS and that’s why this situation has gotten so much worse.”

On the Democratic side of the 2016 presidential race, potential frontrunner Hillary Clinton has not yet weighed in on the AUMF request. She has kept a low profile in recent months, occasionally offering limited commentary -- and thus attracting limited scrutiny -- on the hot-button issues of the day through tweets on social media.

James Arkin contributed to this report. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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