Obama, Congress, & The Fight Against ISIS

Carrier deck of the USS Carl Vinson

Carrier deck of the USS Carl Vinson
U.S. Navy photo by James Vazquez

Obama, Congress, & The Fight Against ISIS
| published February 23, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

U.S. President Barack Obama has asked Congress for the authority to use additional military force to attack ISIS, also known as the Islamic State. But any such debate in Congress could get messy, and may quickly divide along partisan lines.

Though in principal, and for all practical purposes, the United States is already at war with ISIS—at least through its participation in the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria—the President must ask authorization from Congress to expand or extend his war-making powers beyond the scope of current operations. Currently, the White House and the Pentagon are directing military operations based upon the scope of previous war authorizations, specifically those granted to previous President George W. Bush. Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Obama, are an extension of the same anti-terror wars launched after the terror attacks of 9/11.

In theory, at least, the President would receive authorization for continued war powers by the House and the Senate based loosely on the idea that American’s are still fighting the same wars begun in 2001 and 2002. But it may not be that easy this time around. Republicans and Democrats will surely differ sharply on not merely the broad strokes, but also perhaps the exact wording of any such authorization.

Democrats worry that by extending the President such authority, it could open up the possibility of more combat troops being sent back into Iraq, and an on-the-ground expansion of combat operations into a variety of countries now affected by the swift rise of ISIS, such as Syria, Libya and Egypt. Republicans express concern that any newly forged war powers will not go far enough—in essence limiting the Pentagon’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to rapid developments on the ground.  GOP lawmakers also worry that restrictive language might inhibit commanders in the field or at sea from being able to make appropriate real-time decisions about combatting ISIS.

The constitutional issue of the President’s war powers in the current context will need to be resolved quickly, say experts. Many Democrats and Republicans question the White House’s current reasoning that the war on ISIS is an extension of the U.S. war on terror, which was primarily a two-pronged fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as an effort at regime change and reform in Iraq. And, as it turns out, the White House largely agrees that the military operations currently under way across the Middle East need a new, fresh authorization if the fight against the Islamic State is to have effectiveness.

The President says he is willing to negotiate with the House and Senate to find a way to reach consensus on how to wage war with ISIS. Congress says it want the ability to control the language and scope of any authorization, so that a future President—whoever is elected in 2016—will not have the blanket authorization to expand U.S. military action without the approval of lawmakers. Some in Congress want any new war authorizations to include a mandatory sunset clause—a date certain by which the current war powers (those originally granted to Bush) or any war authorizations in the near future, will expire. Some anti-war Democrats want that sunset amendment agreed upon in advance of any new authorizations.

Some Republicans and Democrats are in agreement on the broad point of starting fresh: a newly written war authorization which takes into account the realities of ISIS, and the potential that the Islamic State will have a direct impact on the internal affairs of a dozen countries.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who recently replaced Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon, says that the U.S. must also reconsider its exit strategy from Afghanistan. Many intelligence experts and commanders in the field say that the current timetable for withdrawal will leave Kabul unprepared for the ferocity and effectiveness of a resurgent Taliban, or an ISIS-like militant army which many fear is now evolving in Afghanistan. Carter says an Iraq-type meltdown in Afghanistan is not acceptable for the United States or its allies.

ISIS has expanded its footprint of control to include operations in eastern Libya and western Egypt, as well as along the borders of Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Military analysts fear that ISIS may be systematically co-opting other radical groups and jihadists groups under one international terror organization. ISIS already controls roughly one third of Syria and one third of Iraq, including roads and highways as far east as Iran and as far south as roughly 25 miles north of Baghdad.

Currently, a half dozen countries are engaged in air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria; those air powers include the U.S., Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and France.  But many military analysts—and some in Congress—question whether the air campaign will ultimately the genuine effect of rolling ISIS back from its territorial footprint. ISIS units on the ground have gained in numbers as jihadists and militants migrate to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, sometimes travelling from as far away as Indonesia and Malaysia, and travelling across Europe from places as diverse as Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and France.

By some estimates, ISIS has grown from an army of about 5,000 last summer to roughly 22,000 by early this year. Hundreds of new recruits arrive each day, often crossing into Syria by way of the porous border between Turkey and Syria.

Related Thursday Review articles:

U.S. May Slow Withdrawal From Afghanistan; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review staff; February 22, 2015.

Egypt Strikes ISIS Targets in Libya; Thursday Review staff, Thursday Review; February 16, 2015.