After Hearing, Authorization of War Against ISIS Uncertain

After Hearing, Authorization of War Against ISIS Uncertain
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During a hearing Wednesday with top Obama administration officials, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made clear their desire to debate and pass an authorization for the use of military force against ISIS. At the same time, however, it’s clear that stark divisions remain over the language of such an authorization.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the panel to make the case for the White House’s proposed authorization. President Obama sent the AUMF language to Capitol Hill last month, but a large number of senators on both sides of the aisle immediately took issue with the proposal. Wednesday’s hearing rehashed those concerns.

While all senators on the committee spoke about the importance of Congress passing something approving the use of force, the nature of their divisions makes it difficult to see any middle ground for compromise. Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the committee, laid out this difficulty in his opening statement, saying he doesn’t know of a single Democratic senator who supports the proposal, but that Republicans also have serious concerns with it because of geographic and time limits specified in the language.

Democrat Tim Kaine, one of the senators who has been most vocal in calling for congressional approval of the use of force, said there would be drastic consequences if Congress isn’t able to pass something. Like others, he questioned whether force authorizations in 2001 and 2002 gave authority for the current military action against ISIS, but said the lack of action in Congress has been “highly, highly challenging and disturbing.”

“If we do not act to authorize it, I think from a legal and precedential standpoint, it would be somewhat catastrophic,” Kaine said. “I can’t imagine asking people to risk their lives with us not having done our job, and if we were to pass it in a narrow way or a partisan way, that would not send a message that would make people who are risking their lives feel very good about the risk that they are taking.”

The Virginia lawmaker, along with several other Democrats on the committee, brought up one of the biggest issues for their party regarding the specific AUMF language: the phrase “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” Some Democrats mentioned the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, relaying concerns that the vagueness of the term “enduring” could lead to U.S. troops on the ground for an open-ended period of time. Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the committee, questioned the administration panel about the phrase.

“We all know that it may be the intent of someone not to have any large-scale, long-term offensive combat troops, but that intention can honestly change along the way,” Menendez said.

The draft authorization for force would expire after three years, though Carter made clear that that doesn’t mean the administration believes the mission to destroy ISIS will be completed within that period; instead, the time limit was put in place for political reasons, allowing Obama’s successor to reconsider the AUMF a year into his or her presidency, and go back to Congress for approval to continue the fight if necessary.

Kerry also made the point that because of a 2001 AUMF that was passed after the 9/11 attacks, the White House believes it has the full legal authority to carry out its campaign against the terror group even if Congress can’t manage to pass a new authorization.

Republican Jeff Flake asked Kerry at what point is it not useful to pass an AUMF and whether a partisan vote would be worse than no congressional action at all.

“Is that worse than no AUMF now? Absolutely,” Kerry responded.

After the hearing, Corker said the difficulties in finding a path forward on the issue, both in the committee and in the full Senate, are “pretty significant.”

“If you look at where we are today, obviously that path forward is difficult,” he said. “But I think you see, in spite of some of the tensions and drama that we’ve seen in the last 10 days over a number of things, I think you see a group of people who understand the importance of what we do on the foreign relations committee and will seek a way forward.”

While the authorization for the use of military force was the main topic of the hearing, many senators also used it to air grievances with Kerry over the ongoing nuclear weapons negotiations with Iran. In one of the more contentious moments, Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, got into a heated debate with Kerry over the issue.

“I believe that much of our strategy with regards to ISIS is being driven by a desire not to upset Iran so that they don’t walk away from the negotiating table on the deal that you’re working on,” Rubio said. “Tell me why I’m wrong.”

“Because the facts completely contradict that,” Kerry responded. “But I’m not at liberty to discuss all of them here for a lot of different reasons.”

Also brought up multiple times was the letter, addressed to Iranian leaders about the negotiations, written earlier this week by Republican Tom Cotton and signed by 46 other GOP senators. Kerry, who spent nearly three decades in the Senate, spoke for more than five minutes about the letter, calling it “quite stunning” and saying his reaction was “utter disbelief.” Corker – who did not sign the letter – eventually cut Kerry off to bring the hearing back to questioning over the AUMF.

The matter came up again later when Sen. Rand Paul, also a likely presidential contender, said he signed it to send a message to the Obama administration. Paul said if the negotiations undo sanctions against Iran, it will need to be approved by Congress.

“I signed the letter to Iran, but you know what? The message I was sending was to you,” he said. “The message was to President Obama that we want you to obey the law, we want you to understand the separation of powers.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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