The Cable

White House Asks Congress to Back War Against the Islamic State

Capping months of debate over the congressional role in shaping the ongoing war against the Islamic State, the White House formally submitted a proposal to Capitol Hill asking lawmakers to sign off on a potentially expansive push against the militants.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 07:  Speaker of the House John Boehner looks on as U.S. President Barack Obama meets with bipartisian congressional leadership in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House November 7, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama talked about the positive economic news and what priorities his administration will be focused on after last Tuesday's election, where the Republicans won a decisive victory in local, state and national races. (Photo by Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 07: Speaker of the House John Boehner looks on as U.S. President Barack Obama meets with bipartisian congressional leadership in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House November 7, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama talked about the positive economic news and what priorities his administration will be focused on after last Tuesday's election, where the Republicans won a decisive victory in local, state and national races. (Photo by Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images)

 

This story has been updated.

Capping months of debate over the congressional role in shaping the ongoing war against the Islamic State, the White House formally submitted a proposal to Capitol Hill asking lawmakers to sign off on a potentially expansive push against the militants.

The Authorization for Military Force, or AUMF, gives the White House broad authority to exercise military power in Iraq and Syria, where the radical Sunni group has seized vast swaths of territory and beheaded a number of Western hostages. The proposed war authorization does not explicitly limit operations to Iraq and Syria, a fact that congressional sources say will prompt protests from progressive Democrats and libertarian Republicans uncomfortable with the way the war authorization passed in the aftermath of 9/11 was used to conduct lethal military operations around the world.

“Not sure how that will fare once it meets reality of the Democratic Caucus,” said a senior congressional aide.

However, the authorization does expire after three years, which would require the next president to seek renewal from Congress if so desired.

But the three-year expiration date should not be viewed as a timetable or when the mission is expected to be completed, President Barack Obama said, speaking at the White House Wednesday.

The new draft legislation would repeal the 2002 AUMF, which authorized the war in Iraq. However, it would not undo the 2001 AUMF, passed in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which the White House has used for more than a decade to strike targets around the globe that are associated with al Qaeda.

In the letter that accompanied the new draft legislation, the president makes it clear that he does not want to send tens or hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to the region, saying the proposal “would not authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operations.”

“The resolution we’ve submitted today does not call for the deployment of U.S. ground combat forces to Iraq or Syria. It is not the authorization of another ground war, like Afghanistan or Iraq,” Obama said at the White House.

But the only check on the president’s power, besides the time limit, is a subsection that says the proposal does not authorize the use of the armed forces in “enduring offensive ground combat operations,” a phrase that leaves significant wiggle room for large troop deployments.

In his letter that accompanied the new draft, the president emphasized that “local forces,” such as Kurdish Peshmerga, retrained Iraqi security forces in Iraq, and vetted and trained rebel groups in Syria should be relied on to conduct ground operations “rather than U.S. military forces.”

Obama spelled out some of the limited missions he envisioned for U.S. ground troops, which included rescue operations to save U.S. or coalition personnel and missions conducted by special operations forces to take military action against Islamic State’s leaders.

Obama said U.S. forces might also be needed to collect and share intelligence, and to provide operational planning and assistance to local forces fighting the militant group. Obama’s letter also mentions “missions to enable kinetic strikes,” which could open the door to moving U.S. troops closer to the frontlines to help call in airstrikes.

The president also keeps the target of U.S. actions somewhat vague. The draft legislation says U.S. military force could be used against the Islamic State or “associated persons or forces.” It defines that to mean “individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.”

The White House’s proposal is sure to trigger a heated debate in Congress between the hawkish and dovish wings of both the Republican and Democratic parties.

From the right, congressional sources say hawks such as Arizona Republican John McCain and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham may seek to include legislation that would authorize force against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a step that is beyond what many are willing to do. From the left, anti-war lawmakers will likely try to limit military operations to specific countries, such as Iraq and Syria, or prohibit troops from partaking in ground combat.

Any attempts to limit presidential powers will face push back from top Republicans, such as House Speaker John Boehner. “I believe that if we’re going to authorize the use of military force, the president should have all the tools necessary to win the fight that we’re in,” the Ohio Republican told reporters on Wednesday. “I’m not sure that the strategy that’s been outlined will accomplish the mission the president says he wants to accomplish.”

Still, top Republicans largely refrained from criticizing the proposal, noting that this was just the beginning of a lengthy legislative process.

“I appreciate the president following the long tradition of seeking authorization for the use of military force from Congress,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We will quickly begin to hold rigorous hearings where the administration will have an opportunity to provide Congress and the American people greater clarity on the U.S. strategy to address ISIS, particularly in Syria.”

One of the loudest and earliest proponents for a new AUMF in Congress, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, gave a mixed review of the president’s proposal. “The administration’s draft authorization … includes many provisions I support, such as a repeal of the 2002 authorization and a three-year sunset,” he said. “But I am concerned about the breadth and vagueness of the U.S. ground troop language and will seek to clarify it.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said he wants to closely scrutinize the section of the proposal that authorizes force against the Islamic State and “associated persons or forces.”

“As we saw with the 2001 AUMF, the authority granted in this section can be stretched over time and it is our obligation to ensure that it is appropriately tailored to address the threat,” said Schiff.

At the Pentagon, outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said bipartisan passage of a new AUMF would “provide an important signal of support to [Defense Department] personnel, of commitment to our partners, and of resolve to ISIL.”

He urged Congress “to avoid any undue restraints on the commander-in-chief’s choices in the effort to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.”

But much of the Pentagon’s work to get the new AUMF passed will fall to Hagel’s successor, Ashton Carter, who’s expected to be confirmed by the Senate by the end of this week.

In Foggy Bottom, Secretary of State John Kerry stressed the importance of Congress and the administration speaking in one united voice. “We are strongest as a nation when the administration and Congress work together on issues as significant as the use of military force,” he said. “I also know from talking with so many foreign ministers all over the world that they study our debates here at home, and these public signals matter to them.”

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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