President Barack Obama has achieved something unexpected in Congress: a degree of bipartisanship. There’s enough in his proposal for war powers against the Islamic State for both Democrats and Republicans to hate.
Too restrictive on ground troops, hawkish Republicans say. Overly broad language with no endgame in sight, several war-weary Democrats and Republicans with libertarian streaks complain.
Obama’s authorization for use of military force request against the Islamic State faces a rough go in a skeptical Congress that appears in no hurry to act on it. While most members of the House of Representatives and the Senate say they have the will to address Islamic State activities, they have serious doubts about whether Obama’s authorization request is the way to do it.
“There are many questions, I think, that need to be asked about this authorization . . . before the Congress can move forward,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “The principal question, however, will continue to be: Do we have a strategy?”
Obama’s request for a temporary, three-year authorization of war powers opens the door to ground troops – which Obama for months flatly ruled out. But it also calls for their use against the Islamic State in “limited circumstances,” which include the use of special operations forces to take action against the group’s leadership.
The war powers authorization would have no geographic limits. It seeks to repeal the 2002 authorization used for the war in Iraq but preserve the broader September 2001 authorization for use of military force that allowed for the invasion of Afghanistan – targeting those responsible for Sept. 11 attacks.
The request has divided Congress between those who want more warmaking power than the president seeks and those who want more limits.
Among those in the “do more” caucus: Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham and House Speaker John Boehner. McCain, R-Ariz., flatly rejected language that he feels places restrictions on the use of ground troops.
“I will not agree with anything that curtails the ability of the president of the United States as commander in chief,” he said. “If we want to restrict the president’s military activity we do it with the power of the purse.”
Graham of South Carolina, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, said Obama’s request leaves U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army fighters battling the Islamic State vulnerable because it doesn’t address that country’s civil war or deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“My main objection is it doesn’t destroy” the Islamic State, Graham said. “It allows military operations to only go so far – you can’t get there from here. You can’t destroy ISIL unless you deal with Assad. He’ll bomb the army we train. If the Arabs went in on the ground, here’s the one condition: That we deal with Assad, too.”
Boehner, R-Ohio, said he wants “to give our military commanders the flexibility and authority they need to defeat our enemies.”
“If we’re going to defeat our enemy and win this fight we need a strong, robust strategy, and strong, robust authorization,” Boehner added.
The “do less” group complained that Obama’s request goes too far, especially with its call to keep the 2001 war authorization on the books. Put Rep. Adam Schiff and Sen. Tim Kaine in that caucus.
Kaine, D-Va., said he’s concerned about the “vagueness” of the ground troop language and a line in the request that bans “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”
“The limitation against enduring offensive ground combat operations, suggesting that all defensive ground operations are OK,” Kaine said. “Since everybody works for the Department of Defense, allowing defensive actions without any additional explanation is pretty broad.”
Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that not including a statute of limitations on the 2001 authorization is “a very significant omission.”
“I think that’s a key problem because, in the absence of that, then when the new authorization expires three years from now, the next president can simply fall back on the old 2001 authorization,” he said.
Liberal Democrats weren’t the only ones searching for clarity.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a tea party favorite, said that before he can support a war powers vote, “I need to know that we have an existential threat to the U.S. first, and I’m not convinced of that.”
But if he becomes convinced that the Islamic State poses a threat, “I want to go in there to destroy them, not play footsie with them,” Labrador added.
Congress is eager to deal with the Islamic State, but it’s not necessarily in a hurry to deal with Obama’s request.
“We’ll take our time,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I don’t think anybody feels like their hair is on fire on this,” Corker said. “The bombing’s been going on for six months. He’s had six months to send something over, he did, that’s appreciated. And now we’ll begin the work of going through the process.”
Stephanie Sanok Kostro, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ international security program, said that, in the end, Congress will approve some form of authorization.
“There are enough people interested in repealing the 2002 Iraq authorization and to put their imprint on taking a stand against” the Islamic State, she said. “But this is going to take a couple of months.”
Lindsay Wise of the Washington Bureau contributed.