The White House on Tuesday began circulating its draft proposal for new war powers to combat ISIS terrorists in the years ahead. But the proposal vowed victory without an “enduring combat” role for the U.S. – and a three-year limit on military action before the next president would have to seek additional authority.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough briefed lawmakers on the proposal’s broad outlines Tuesday – the same day Obama confirmed the death of Kayla Jean Mueller, a 26-year-old U.S. aid worker who spent more than a year in ISIS captivity.
Six months after President Obama announced the U.S. had begun airstrikes against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria and would recruit and train moderate Syrian rebels in the effort, the administration and Congress are finally hashing out specific tactics and goals.
President Obama at one time insisted he had adequate congressional authority dating back to the early days of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he changed his mind after Republicans took control of Congress in the midterm elections.
Obama is clearly walking a tightrope in trying to reassure Democrats and some Republicans that he would not begin another endless conflict in the Middle East like the decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s also trying to placate conservative Republicans, including Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who advocate all-out war against ISIS and fear Congress might end up hamstringing the commander-in-chief.
While the new war powers language is still sketchy, the proposed authorization seems built on three pillars.
- A finite timetable before serious reconsideration and reauthorization of the strategy.
- A somewhat more permissive deployment of U.S. ground troops and Special Forces in war zones than Obama’s original “no U.S. boots on the ground” dictum.
- The authority to pursue ISIS and other terror groups beyond the current boundaries of Iraq and Syria.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) told reporters Obama would seek authorization for the use of force that would expire after three years. It would end the approval for operations in Iraq that Congress passed in 2002. Several other lawmakers said the authority Obama seeks would be targeted exclusively against the fighters seeking establishment of an Islamic state – wherever they are and whatever name they use.
In some ways, this last tenet – essentially allowing the U.S. military and Arab and European allies to hunt ISIS forces or other terrorists groups beyond Iraq and Syria – suggests a lot more flexibility in Obama’s mandate than some had assumed.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN) said in an interview yesterday that President Obama “absolutely” needs flexibility in targeting ISIS, given the terrorists’ reach into other parts of the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
“I know at the beginning people were talking about [just focusing on ISIS] in Iraq and Syria, but they’re in eight countries today,” Corker said. “If the authorization was geography specific, what you would be saying to ISIS is, ‘If you’re not in these places, you’re safe.’ It has to be very flexible relative to geography.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that while the White House has outlined the limits on the use of ground troops, “I think the big discussion will be over how you work the language on troops.” Would an aggressive combat effort to weed out the terrorists be permitted, in other words, or would troop activity be confined to protecting other military personnel or U.S. interests?
“The president should have the ability to use Special Operations, knowing a little about ISIS and their barbarity,” Feinstein said. “As I understand it, the authority doesn’t prevent the use of special operations.”
The debate over deploying ground troops will be difficult, with many Democrats including Menendez and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) opposed to the use of U.S. ground forces. McCain and other Republicans want to keep the door open on that possibility.
Other Democrats say they’re troubled by the vagueness of Obama’s proposed language, especially his vow to avoid trapping the country in another “enduring combat.”
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said she has significant questions about the proposal. She said she didn’t know what was meant by the word “enduring” in this context. “I am very apprehensive about a vague, foggy word,” she told the Associated Press.
Some GOP leaders praised Obama for submitting specific proposed language that can be a starting point for lengthy hearings and then a markup of a bill.
“None of us have seen the exact language, but I think there is a bipartisan desire to work with the president to have this as a collaborative decision of both the executive branch and Congress,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate GOP whip. “For the American fighting forces in harm’s way, they deserve to know the American people are behind them and that Congress supports what we are asking them to do.”
Graham, who may seek the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, said administration officials had told him the authorization would not provide protection of U.S.-trained Syrian rebel troops on the ground if there were an air attack by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
“If you don’t have a strategy or authorization that will allow us to protect the people we train to go fight ISIL on the ground from an Assad attack, then it won’t work,” Graham told reporters. “It’s an unsound military strategy. I think it’s immoral that the authorization doesn’t allow for us to counter Assad’s air power.”
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: