Kerry Says the Fight Against the Islamic State Could Expand Beyond Iraq and Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on procuring an AUMF to combat ISIS, on December 9, 2014.

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Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on procuring an AUMF to combat ISIS, on December 9, 2014.

Secretary of State John Kerry says Congress shouldn’t limit geography or ground combat in the war against the Islamic State. By Molly O’Toole

Secretary of State John Kerry says the fight against the Islamic State should not have any limitations on geography or ground combat.

As Congress debates a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, against the Islamic State, Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that the Obama administration doesn’t want to limit the fight to Iraq and Syria — or to any specific country. He said he’s concerned that Islamic State fighters could believe they have safe haven outside of those countries.

“We don’t anticipate conducting operations in countries other than Iraq or Syria,” Kerry said. “But to the extent that ISIL poses a threat to American interests and personnel in other countries, we would not want an AUMF to constrain our ability to use appropriate force against ISIL in those locations if necessary.”

We didn’t limit al Qaeda geographically [after 9/11],” Kerry said. “It’d be terrible to send a message to these guys, ‘You’ve got a safe haven over here, you’ve got a safe haven over here.’ … This is bigger than just where it is in just Iraq and Syria.”

Kerry also pushed open the door a crack further on using U.S. troops on the ground in a combat position. While he reiterated the president’s stance against sending major ground troops into Iraq and Syria, he also stated that any AUMF should not “pre-emptively bind the hands of the Commander-in-Chief — or our commanders in the field — in responding to scenarios and contingencies that are impossible to foresee.”  

The main point of disagreement between the administration and Congress on an AUMF against the Islamic State is “what is the appropriate level of restraint on the president of the U.S. as commander in chief, and Congress micro-managing of what the military can or can’t do in the context of this fight,” Kerry said.

It’s a charade now. Congress is not going to act between now and the end of the session.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The “boots on the ground” issue is deeply divisive in Congress. Critics of the administration’s strategy to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State say it cannot succeed without U.S. combat troops. Others express concern about another open-ended, large ground war in the Middle East.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said that sending a sizeable number of U.S. ground troops to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would be like “fighting a fire with gasoline.”

(RelatedIslamic State Is On the ‘Defensive’ As a Coalition Builds in Iraq)

Many members of the committee — namely chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.— expressed frustration that if the administration opposes congressional proposals as too restrictive and Obama says he will ask Congress for an authorization, why has the White House not sent over its own draft of an AUMF?

Kerry did not provide a concrete answer for that question. “If it’s dysfunctional, maybe that’s the reason the president did not send it up,” he quipped.

The administration says it does not need authorization from Congress for the war against the Islamic State that is now more than 90 days old, because Obama has sufficient authority under two prior laws: the 2001 AUMF, passed just after the 9/11 attacks, and the 2002 AUMF against Iraq, which approved the invasion.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has jurisdiction over a new AUMF, and Menendez will introduce his resolution later Tuesday, with amendments to be added until a markup on Thursday.

Menendez’s measure does not include geographical limitations and authorizes military force against the Islamic State and others fighting for or on behalf of the terrorist group. But it limits that force by barring ground combat operations, except in the case of protecting or rescuing U.S. citizens, intelligence operations, spotters to assist air strikes and other advisory roles. Menendez’s AUMF would sunset in three years – a deadline Kerry said the administration supports, with possibilities for extension – and requires reports to Congress every 60 days.

But it’s unclear the AUMF will ever make it out of committee, and even less likely that it will get a vote in the Senate, before the end of the session. Still, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., urged, “We believe it’s an unauthorized war … we cannot afford to wait until the sixth month of a war for Congress to say a mumbling word about this.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was more blunt. “It’s a charade now. Congress is not going to act between now and the end of the session,” he told Defense One.

“It’s creeping, it’s incremental, they will need more … it’s going to require more and more troops on the ground,” he said.

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