Tim Kaine Thinks ISIS Fight Needs Congressional Approval
Will Commander in Chief Hillary Clinton listen to him?
Sen. Tim Kaine, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s running mate, waged a quixotic campaign to restrict President Barack Obama’s power to wage war against the Islamic State. Will that leave him at odds with a Commander in Chief Clinton?
If past positions hold, it would. Kaine has long argued that Congress needs to pass a new authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, giving the White House permission to continue battling the Islamic State. In 2014, he drafted a war authorization bill outlining what the United States could and couldn’t do to fight the group — a measure designed to prevent the military campaign from escalating out of control.
The proposal by the Virginia senator barred the use of U.S. ground troops in Iraq or Syria, placed explicit geographic constraints on where Congress was authorizing the president to fight, and required the White House to come back to Congress in a year for new approval. Ultimately, Kaine’s bill didn’t advance in the Senate.
“At the end of this administration, with the complicity of this Congress, we have basically come up with a war doctrine that says ‘wherever and whenever,’ as long as the president feels it’s a good idea — without Congress even needing to do anything about it,” Kaine said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in April.
As the war in Syria drags on and the death toll climbs higher, Kaine and others continue to demand the White House get formal approval for the Islamic State fight.
Clinton sees things differently and is effectively trying to have it both ways. Like Obama, she believes she could fight the Islamic State without explicit congressional approval. At the same time, she has said she’s open to a new AUMF about the Islamic State, in part as a public relations gesture to show congressional support for the fight.
“Congress ought to express its resolve to stand behind our military and win this fight by passing a new AUMF, and she has publicly applauded Kaine’s efforts,” Clinton spokesman Jesse Lehrich told Foreign Policy in a statement Tuesday.
Put another way, a Clinton-Kaine administration would likely carry on the fight against the Islamic State by relying on the same legal argument that Obama has made: It doesn’t need congressional approval — the existing authorizations suffice — but it would be nice to have it. Whether Clinton and Kaine, if elected, would renew the push for a new AUMF remains to be seen. For his part, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said he would formally declare war against the Islamic State, something that Congress hasn’t done since World War II.
One thing is clear: Clinton would handle the Islamic State fight very differently than Trump, who has outlined a neo-isolationist foreign policy and has talked about refusing to come to the aid of NATO members in the event of a Russian invasion. Clinton has adopted a far more hawkish approach, stressing that she would seek diplomatic approaches when possible but would use force if necessary. The former secretary of state reiterated that position Monday during a speech at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in North Carolina.
“I have visited our troops in theaters of war and tension. I know how serious this is,” Clinton said, to a chilly reception. “Force must only be used as a last resort and only with a clear and well-thought-out strategy.”
Despite their differences over whether future presidents need congressional approval to fight the Islamic State, Clinton and Kaine both believe that the United States needs to create a no-fly zone or a humanitarian safe zone in Syria to protect civilians fleeing the country’s brutal civil war, a step Obama has been unwilling to take. If put in place, such a no-fly zone could require shooting down Russian or Syrian planes and bombing the country’s anti-air defenses — a significant escalation of America’s role in a conflict the president has sought to avoid.
Kaine has urged the president to establish humanitarian safe zones for more than a year. “These zones would provide essential protection for displaced Syrian civilians and a safe transit route for desperately needed humanitarian supplies,” Kaine wrote in an April 2015 letter to the president.
His proposal, also supported by Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, did not offer specifics on how Syrians fleeing the safe zone would be protected from ground attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The Obama administration has cited that uncertainty as part of its explanation for opposing the creation of a no-fly zone.
This puts Kaine in line with Clinton, who has also broken with the White House with her own call for more interventionist policies in Syria, including arming the country’s moderate rebels. “I personally would be advocating now for a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors to try to stop the carnage on the ground and from the air, to try to provide some way to take stock of what’s happening, to try to stem the flow of refugees,” she said in October 2015.
Kaine’s interest in military authorization was first sparked by his long-standing ties with the University of Virginia, which produced a bipartisan report in 2008 by two former secretaries of state, James Baker and Warren Christopher, calling for an overhaul in how the executive branch goes to war.
“He would always stress the fact that by design the constitution vests in Congress, not the president, the power to declare war,” Peter Billerbeck, a former Kaine aide, told FP.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, worked with Kaine while he tried to get a similar war authorization bill through the House. Schiff credits Kaine for being willing to spend political capital on a fight he was likely to lose, as he ultimately did.
“It’s not an issue you take on because you want a legislative victory to notch your belt with, because you’re unlikely to get it,” Schiff told FP in an interview Tuesday in Philadelphia. “There are a lot of easier issues to take on.”
Early drafts of Kaine’s AUMF proposals were careful not to write a blank check for the president’s anti-Islamic State efforts. On top of U.S. ground troops prohibitions, a one-year sunset, and a desire to narrow the definition of “associated” al Qaeda forces, Kaine also wanted to place geographic constraints on where Congress was authorizing the president to go to war.
However, he’s been willing to compromise for the sake of finding a consensus. After a series of drawn-out debates with his Republican colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2014, Kaine voted in support of an authorization that did not include geographic limits and that lapsed after three years, not one. “It had things Kaine didn’t want, but he voted for it because he thought it was a good compromise,” a current aide on Kaine’s Senate staff said.
The Democratic Party platform adopted at the convention in Philadelphia Monday commits a Clinton-Kaine administration to seeking an “updated” and “more precise” AUMF. It explicitly rules out the “large-scale combat deployment of American troops” but sets no other restrictions on the future shape of the war.
Schiff said Clinton, a former New York senator, understands the role Congress must play in authorizing the use of force. At the same time, as an executive, she would still face a deeply divided Congress. He expects that she would adopt the Obama administration’s argument that it already has enough power to wage war but also be willing to make a legitimate push to get a new, Islamic State-specific one.
“It will be a necessary part of the broader effort of outlining the new administration’s strategy for defeating ISIS and al Qaeda,” Schiff said, referring to the Islamic State by an alternate acronym.
“This isn’t just about authorizing war against ISIS. This is about whether or not Congress has any role in foreign policy and setting the parameters of foreign engagements,” added Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee with Kaine and has also drafted his own AUMF legislation. “This fight over the AUMF is really a fight over whether Congress is going to continue to be relevant.”
Photo credit: GUSTO CABALLERO/Getty Images
David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis
John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson