Can Congress Be Trusted With America’s Foreign Policy?
Iran, Ukraine and a new war powers request to fight the Islamic State give Congress plenty to consider and even more to mess up.
As the world watches, President Obama is being forced into a national security trust fall with a Congress that he's been unable to count on before.
Since the beginning of the year, Congress has dared the president to reject an oil pipeline, and challenged his executive actions on immigration. Now, the president is at the mercy of the same legislative body that was stuck for weeks on a Homeland Security Department funding bill as it devotes more bandwidth to solving some of the country's most perplexing foreign policy crises. Some senators are wondering if Congress is up to the task.
"We have got to show the American public, and I would argue, the world, that we can give these issues the careful consideration they deserve," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "I am forced to admit that recent events have caused me to have some significant doubts about our institutional capacity to tackle these issues in a responsible way."
Congress is off to a rough start. The same week that Congress is slated to launch a serious debate over legislation that gives Obama official approval to use military force to defeat ISIS, Democrats are fuming at 47 Republican senators who sent a letter to Tehran Monday discounting the White House's authority to negotiate with them.
Those partisan fissures look set to grow. On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and General Martin Dempsey will make the administration's opening pitch before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for an updated authorization for use of military force. The hearing will be an opportunity for members to voice concerns and criticisms of the administration's strategy against ISIS. But it also will give senators what they have wanted all along—input on how the U.S. moves forward.
However, debating the nitty gritty details of an AUMF could reveal intraparty schisms amongst Democrats and Republicans, as well as limit Obama's options as commander in chief.
The finer points of the AUMF already have revealed frictions among Republicans and Democrats. Some hawkish Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, worry it limits the president too much and inhibits the U.S. from debilitating the enemy. Meanwhile, war-weary Democrats want clearer language to be written in to ensure that U.S. troops won't be ensnared in another Middle Eastern conflict for years to come.
To battle ISIS, Obama is requesting a three-year AUMF that limits, but does not rule out, the use of ground troops, and requires him to report progress to Congress every six months. His request leaves the 2001 Bush-drafted AUMF—the same one the White House has been relying on as rationale to intervene with airstrikes in Syria and Iraq—in place, but it's the first chance that senators will have to get their fingerprints on a new ISIS strategy.
Whether that can actually make it to the Senate floor or not for a vote, however, is still uncertain.
"Oh, the AUMF is dead on arrival ... it won't work," Graham told National Journal, conceding that Republicans and Democrats are simply too far apart. "I want to keep it really simple. Do what you need to to destroy and degrade ISIS wherever they are located, period. ... I think the libertarians and the liberals would say 'no.'
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker contends that there is not a single Democrat he knows of who supports the president's AUMF as it stands, and few in his party who are comfortable with further restricting it, as Democrats want to do. That is an "interesting" place to begin, Corker told reporters Tuesday, especially considering that any AUMF approval could have little impact on a conflict the White House is already engaged in.
"A lot of energy went into the fact that the president sent an AUMF and all of that," Corker says. "I think we all know, at present, whether we pass an AUMF or don't pass an AUMF has zero effect on what is happening on the ground, none, zero."
The Obama administration claimed that it had the authority to strike ISIS months ago, but an AUMF debate is still a gamble for the president, who has turned to Congress before for input on issues of national security and was left without a clear option to move forward. In 2013, after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed a "red line" and unleashed chemical weapons on the Syrian people, Obama stalled his own plan to conduct limited airstrikes in the country and asked Congress, instead, for permission to act. Eventually Obama's request became irrelevant because Assad agreed to turn over chemical weapons.
The tussle over Iran on the Hill is only making an AUMF more complicated. Diplomatic negotiations with Iran already have spiked tensions and eroded good will between the White House and Republicans in Congress, highlighted by the letter sent this week. Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, who signed the letter, says that communications between Republicans and Obama may be as "bad or worse" as he has ever seen.
"When you have a president [whose] reaction to the election is he is speaking for the two-thirds who didn't vote and immediately issues executive orders he said himself 22 times were unconstitutional, that makes for very poor relations," McCain says.
The GOP's Iran letter underscores just how far apart Congress and the White House are on issues of national security. While Obama has remained open to a nuclear deal, Republicans are warning that there is little they might be willing to accept. The letter outraged Democrats—including Minority Leader Harry Reid, who took to the floor Monday afternoon and derided the letter's author, freshman Sen. Tom Cotton.
"Let's be clear, Republicans are undermining our commander in chief while empowering the Ayatollahs," Reid said in a floor speech. "We should always have a robust debate about foreign policy, but it is unprecedented for one political party to directly intervene on an international negotiation with the sole goal of embarrassing the president of the United States."
Even if the White House does manage to craft a deal with Iran, a bipartisan group of senators are lining up to pass legislation that would give them the authority to approve or disapprove of it.
Ukraine is still on the back burner for many members of Congress, who want Obama to take more action to help the country as it pushes back Russian forces. While the president signed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act in December, which gives him broad latitude to enact sanctions against Russia, he's been reluctant to take more action. Republicans and some Democrats are worried that Obama has failed to provide Ukraine with the resources it needs to deflect the Russians.
"We keep working on this aspirational basis as Russia works effectively to take more and more land," Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said during a hearing focused on Ukraine Tuesday.
Between ISIS, Iran, and Ukraine, members are scrambled along a dizzying mix of party and ideological lines, and the Obama administration is forced to wait on and abide by a Congress that does not have a reputation for moving quickly.
In the past, Congress has given deference to the White House to make the tough foreign policy calls. This Congress isn't prepared to hand that responsibility over to Obama, but it may not be able to shoulder the burden either.