Senators and Obama’s top officials agree on one thing on the war against the Islamic State -- Congress is unlikely to authorize it, and it’s unlikely to matter.
Congress is unlikely to pass a new authorization for the president to wage war against the Islamic State, or ISIS, and such a measure would have little actual impact on the fight, according to both President Barack Obama’s top war council officials and the senators who grilled them on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
While arguing that Congress should pass an authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, to send an important signal to allies and enemies alike, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey reiterated that the war would continue under open-ended authorizations passed more than a decade ago during the Bush administration.
More than seven months after the U.S. launched a war against ISIS, the trio testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday in the highest-profile hearing yet on whether to adopt a new, White-House drafted AUMF to fight the terrorist group. Committee members, while agreeing on the need for military action against ISIS, laid out irreconcilable points of opposition to the president’s proposal, which has taken a backseat politically to the pending deal with Iran over its nuclear program. A political outline for the agreement is due March 24.
“Most of the time this work period is going to be spent on Iran, and trying to get something passed that will give Congress its appropriate role in issues of that magnitude, so that’s our focus right now,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told Defense One. Part of the difficulty with the AUMF, he said, is, “It’s not going to change one iota of what’s happening on the ground, not one iota.”
“The fact that they’re already operating, it’s been going for 8 months, they believe they have a legal basis, and we know nothing’s going to change on the ground, certainly affects the acuteness of this.”
The Senate Foreign Relations committee, which has jurisdiction over the AUMF, is a bellwether for whether Obama’s proposal or any other could pass Congress.
Committee Democrats broadly oppose the AUMF draft for being too ambiguous, potentially authorizing an open-ended, “blank check” for war, as Ranking Member Bob Menendez, D-N.J., put it. Republicans also broadly oppose the AUMF, but mostly over the concern it could be used to place undo restrictions on the military, and is thus unserious.
“We don't know of a single Democrat in Congress, in the United States Senate, anyway, that supports that AUMF,” Corker said. “And so, what that does … is put Republican senators in the position of looking at a limited AUMF that, in some ways, ratifies a strategy, specially in Syria, that many people do not believe is effective.” Menendez confirmed to Defense One that he and most Democrats would not back the AUMF as drafted.
Carter said the phrase on which much of the debate hinges -- “enduring offensive ground combat operations” -- is the “one significant writ limitation,” included in the draft.
“Essentially, it does not authorize the kind of a campaign that we conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Carter said.
Senators weren’t satisfied with the officials’ responses on the ambiguity, but much of the hearing centered on the geopolitical implications of the ISIS fight and Iran’s role in the region.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., suggested to Kerry that Obama is holding off on more aggressive military action in order to assuage Iran into concessions on its nuclear ambitions.
“Tell me why I'm wrong,” Rubio said to Kerry.
“Because the facts completely contradict that,” Kerry said.
“They want us to destroy ISIS; they want to destroy ISIS. ISIS is a threat to them; it's a threat to the region,” Kerry said of Iran, continuing, “I think this has been a misread by a lot of people up here on the Hill, to be honest with you: There is no grand bargain being discussed here in the context of this negotiation. This is about a nuclear weapon potential. That's it.”
Dempsey, who was in Baghdad this weekend, said the ongoing operation to take back the Iraqi city of Tikrit will tell whether the region devolves further into sectarian violence, thus preventing a sustainable peace, or gives Iran a major Shia advantage in the proxy war for influence in the region. The anti-ISIS forces engaged in the Tikrit offensive consist of roughly 1,000 Sunni tribal fighters; a 3,000-strong Iraqi Security Force brigade; and 20,000 Shia militiamen, who are “Iranian trained and somewhat Iranian equipped,” Dempsey said.
As Obama continues to state he will not put U.S. boots on the ground, his war council members have argued that additional ground forces, preferably supplied by regional Arab states, are necessary to taking back and holding territory from ISIS. But those boots could also be Iranian.
The politicking largely leaves the fate of the AUMF to Corker, also the primary author of a bill designed to allow Congress to weigh in on any agreement with Iran. Last week, Democratic co-sponsors withdrew their support for that bill after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced he’d fast track it outside of committee for a vote before the March 24 deadline. McConnell backed off at Corker’s request, the majority leader told Defense One, but days later, a letter directed to Iranian leaders that threatened any deal, authored by freshman Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. won the signatures of 47 members of the 54-seat Republican Senate majority.
Kerry harshly criticized the senators for the letter. “To write to the leaders in the middle of a negotiation, particularly the leaders that -- that they have criticized other people for even engaging with or writing to, to write them and suggest that -- that they're going to give a constitutional lesson, which by the way was absolutely incorrect, is quite stunning,” he said.
Corker’s signature was notably absent from the letter, and it may have made his work on getting the Iran bill to a veto-proof majority, and his work on getting any AUMF, more difficult.
“In spite of some of the tensions and drama that we’ve seen over the last 10 days … I think you see in general a group of people who understand the importance of what we do … and who will seek a way forward, but we don’t know yet what that is,” Corker said after the hearing.
“Look, I didn’t sign the letter,” he continued. “My goal is to work in a bipartisan way to move this to a place where we can vote,” similar to what Kerry and Obama did as senators considering the status of forces agreement with Iraq, he pointed out.
“You learn in this business where you stand is where you sit. Congress views the agreement with Iran to be one of the biggest geopolitical events probably during the service that most of us have here.”