The Fight Against ISIS: How Much Latitude Will Congress Give?

chopper off Arabian Gulf

Photo John Phillip Wagner, Jr/Courtesy of U.S. Navy

The Fight Against ISIS: How Much Latitude Will Congress Give?
| published February 11, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

President Barack Obama wants Congressional approval for the use of military force against ISIS in the Middle East—particularly in Iraq and Syria—and on Wednesday he sent over the proposed legislation for exactly that power.

If you are asking yourself “isn’t the United States already using military force to attack ISIS in order to degrade and destroy its capabilities?” then the answer is yes.

Of course it’s not that simple. Throughout U.S. history Presidents have been given varying degrees of latitude to engage militarily without actually getting overt approval for war from Congress. Four consecutive U.S. Presidents did exactly that during the long American experience in Vietnam, routinely described as a “war,” though in fact no declaration of war was ever officially decreed during the protracted conflict in Southeast Asia.

President George W. Bush sought, and received, approval from Congress in 2002 to launch a full-scale military campaign culminating in the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, some of the current U.S. intervention in Iraq, the White House has argued, is a direct descendant of that 13-year-old Congressional authorization. In other words, the U.S. is fighting that same war, and the bombing missions over the skies of Iraq are an extension of the same conflict. Syria is, however, a different matter.

President Obama wants to make clear to Congress that he is not asking for authorization for “enduring offensive combat operations,” a phrase sufficiently vague enough to worry some Democrats for its seemingly endless flexibility, but a statement which worries Republicans for its potential for narrowness and the limits is could inflict on military commanders.

There are already some 2600 American troops in Iraq with the mission of backing and training Iraqi forces for what may be a long and difficult fight against ISIS, and the U.S. is training at least 450 Americans for the job of assisting free-Syrian army units and moderate rebel groups in Syria. America’s war in Afghanistan officially ended in late December, though more than 13,000 U.S. military personnel will remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, most military analysts say, the coalition’s air campaign—ramped up in recent days and weeks—may have halted the forward momentum of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but it has done little to dislodge ISIS from the vast territorial gains the militant army made last spring and summer before the ISIS advance was halted.  Jordan, one of the coalition partners, has unleashed some 60 air attacks within the last week in retaliation for the murder of a Jordanian pilot--burned alive by ISIS militants.

Obama’s request will likely find approval in the House and Senate, but not without intense wrangling over the depth and breadth of his war powers. Since the days of Vietnam, members of Congress are wary of issuing broadly-worded authorizations for presidents to engage in combat operations. Many Republicans worry that the language of the legislation may be too narrowly-defined, and will limit the Pentagon’s ability to wage a winnable war. Many Democrats fear just the opposite: that authorization without properly worded constraints and guidelines may open the path to heavy combat operations, thousands of boots on the ground, and unforeseen costs which could stretch into the future.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the legislation might require changes before he would encourage members to sign off on it, suggesting that the current authorization would not provide “military commanders the flexibility and authorities they need to succeed and protect our people.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) also questioned the bill’s vague wording, but said he was hopeful lawmakers could reach an agreement.

Most Democrats in Congress say they are wary of any legislation which allows for ground troops to be deployed by the President. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) said that the legislation will require very careful wording to ensure the bill reflects only the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and does not provide an open-ended empowerment for Obama—or the next President—to expand the fight beyond the mission of defanging and destroying ISIS.

President Obama said that by sending this legislation to Congress, and through its approval, lawmakers will be helping the U.S. “show the world we are united in our resolve” in the fight against ISIS and other terror groups.

The White House was careful to avoid getting boxed-in by the semantics of the legislation, or by the intense questioning of journalists who wanted clarity on precisely what the President would consider appropriate levels of military escalation. Press spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that the boots-on-the-ground scenarios might likely include the ability in insert Special Forces teams or other specialized operations groups into potential combat or rescue missions, or for the use of highly-targeted ground objectives, such as raids where ISIS leaders might be convening or where hostages might be held.

Obama also said he was endorsing the idea of a three-year limit on the current legislation: lawmakers would have the option to allow the war powers defined in this bill to expire at the end of three years, regardless of who occupies the White House at that time.

Related Thursday Review articles:

White House to Seek War Authorization; Thursday Review; February 10, 2015.

Jordan Unleashes Firepower Against ISIS; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 6, 2015.