War Powers for Obama: How Far Should a President Go?
Policy + Politics

War Powers for Obama: How Far Should a President Go?

Amid the uproar over revelations of CIA torture of detainees throughout the early years of President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism, 18 Democratic and Republican politicians sat in a Senate conference room Thursday and fought over the terms of the latest war on terror – President Obama’s effort to “degrade and destroy” ISIS.

Although lawmakers were nearly as much in the dark as the public about the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program as it has been presented by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 528-page summary report, some believe Congress was asleep at the switch in overseeing the overall conduct of a long and costly war.


Republicans have been enraged by what they see as President Obama’s “executive overreach” by unilaterally issuing immigration regulations and altering the timetable for implementing Obamacare. When it comes to the war on ISIS, though, most Republicans are prepared to give the president near carte blanche – an odd development considering the huge stakes in terms of military casualties and mounting defense costs.

Related: CIA Torture Report Casts New Light on Gitmo Prisoners

With the Obama administration seemingly reluctant to take a direct hand in drafting a new authorization for military force against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee took a first stab at thrashing out a blueprint.

Along strict party lines, the Democratic-dominated committee voted 10 to 8 to authorize U.S. military action against ISIS and its associated forces for the next three years, while prohibiting the deployment of U.S. ground troops to help combat the enemy.

The vote was more symbolic than real: Congress will revisit the issue early next year after a new Republican majority takes control of the Senate. 

With few exceptions, lawmakers also have little practical military experience. Much of what they do and say must be seen more through the prism of politics than any hard-headed military strategy.

Related: Kerry to Congress: ‘Don’t Hem Us In Against ISIS’

The resolution was championed by Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who argued that President Obama should not have the sole power to send young Americans on dangerous overseas assignments. He openly fretted that he did not want to be party to another decade-long and open-ended Middle East conflict.

“What I don’t want to live through again – many members don’t – is the 2001 authorization that 14 years later has taken us to a host of countries we never envisioned,” Menendez said today on MSNBC. “What we have done is laid down a marker for the parameters … that gives the president the wherewithal to do everything he’s doing right now. But what it doesn’t do is give him or any future president a blank check.”

He added, “It is Congress’ imperative to ultimately make the decision as to how we are going to send America’s sons and daughters into harm’s way.”

By contrast, most Republicans couldn’t disagree more – arguing that the growing ISIS threat is too great to tie the hands of the commander-in-chief. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a highly decorated Vietnam War era hero and his party’s 2008 presidential nominee, says it will be impossible to defeat ISIS with airstrikes alone – that eventually we’ll need ground troops.

Related: Can the U.S. Defeat ISIS Without a War Powers Deal? 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) agrees with McCain that the U.S efforts to defeat ISIS have been woefully inadequate – and that half-measures like strategic airstrikes and training “moderate” Syrian rebels won’t work against the fast-growing radical Islamists.

“Instead of giving the president what he needs to win this struggle, many in the Senate seem more focused on telling him what he should not do,” Rubio wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post Thursday. “They argued we need to place conditions on the types of force that can be used or impose a timeline by why victory must be achieved. Yet the threat is growing by the day.”

The views of Rubio and of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), of course, on the use of military force in the Middle East are diametrically opposed. With both senators potentially gearing up for the 2016 GOP nomination, their conflicting views will define the contours of the Republican debate over defense and foreign policy as the campaign heats up.

Until recently, Paul, a libertarian, was seen as an outlier within his party. He now concedes the U.S. must vigorously combat ISIS but believes Obama should seek a formal declaration of war from Congress – something Obama has been unwilling to do. Paul also says the president should return to Congress in a year for reauthorization and limit the U.S. engagement to Iraq and Syria.

Related: Rand Paul Says Obama and Congress on ‘Fool’s Mission’ Against ISIS 

In testimony to the committee Tuesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry suggested the administration would take its cues from the Senate on the outlines of new war powers language. He warned against hemming in the president in the fight against the terrorists.

“The president has been crystal clear that his policy is that U.S. military forces will not be deployed to conduct ground combat operations against ISIL,” Kerry said, using a different acronym for the group. “It doesn’t mean we should 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.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the likely successor to Menendez as chairman in January, said he wants to hear more about the administration’s concern about limiting language before he signs off on a new authorization for military force.

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