Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), arguably one of the severest critics of President Obama’s foreign policy, says he’s prepared to give the president a very wide berth in pursuing the war against the ISIS jihadists in Syria and Iraq as part of new war powers authority that Congress is now certain to approve either later this month or early next year when the GOP takes full control of Congress.
“I would like to see an authorization that frankly does not restrict the commander in chief,” McCain told MSNBC on Thursday. “You may find that a little unusual, given this president and my feelings about his leadership. But the fact is we need to understand the president is the commander-in-chief, and that role I do not believe should be impinged on by the Congress.”
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The one-time Republican presidential nominee’s words will take on added weight next month after the GOP takes control of the Senate and McCain is elevated to become the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Since announcing his stepped-up air war on ISIS in September, Obama has balked at the idea of seeking specific congressional war powers authority to expand the fight beyond Iraq into neighboring Syria. He did that in part out of concern that many Democrats wary of the U.S. getting more deeply involved in the Syrian and Iraqi chaos would refuse.
During his White House press conference on Wednesday, Obama disclosed he was now open to negotiating new language, and would take it up with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) during a meeting with them and Democratic congressional leaders at the White House Friday afternoon.
“I'm going to begin engaging Congress over a new Authorization to Use Military Force against ISIL,” Obama said yesterday. “The world needs to know we are united behind this effort, and the men and women of our military deserve our clear and unified support.”
McConnell has been arguing for months that it would be a mistake for the president to pursue the stepped up battle with the formidable ISIS without lawmakers united behind him.
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Congress approved authorization for the U.S. to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS before it departed in mid-September to resume campaigning, but the measure drew relatively strong opposition from some conservatives and many liberal Democrats.
The United States currently has more than 1,400 service members in Iraq as part of the Pentagon’s military operation against the Islamic State group, according to Defense One. The operation costs an average of more than $8 million per day, for a total cost of roughly $580 million since U.S. air attacks against the group began in Iraq on Aug. 8.
The president and U.S. allies have greatly stepped up air strikes against ISIS forces since then, with varying degrees of success. Obama has repeatedly vowed to avoid deploying combat troops to the region, but Boehner and other Republicans have said that the U.S. may have to put “boots on the ground” if the military campaign is ever to succeed.
When Obama first disclosed the air strikes, administration officials said the president was relying on his authority as commander in chief. In announcing his strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS in September, however, Obama said, “I’m confident that I have the authorization that I need to protect the American people.” Yet as the operation was expanded, White House officials said the president was relying on the relatively ancient 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) and the 2002 AUMF.
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Now that the U.S. military operation against the Islamic State has expanded into Syria, many Republican and Democratic lawmakers have said the president should come before Congress for authorization, to discuss the parameters of the warfare and decide whether to put a deadline on the action.
“The last authorization specifically mentioned the 9/11 attacks and those responsible for it,” McCain said today. “So it should be updated, but I want to do it very carefully.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a strong advocate of repealing the prior AUMFs, wrote Boehner a letter asking him to schedule a debate and vote on a new AUMF when Congress returns.
The Wall Street Journal reported today that Obama secretly wrote to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month and described a shared interest in fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. The newspaper said that the letter appeared aimed both at strengthening the U.S.-led international campaign against ISIS and “push Iran’s religious leader closer to reaching a nuclear deal with the West.”
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McCain has described Obama’s policies in dealing with the civil war in Syria as a disaster and renewed his criticism of the president for disregarding the advice of top military and intelligence experts more than a year ago to assist moderate Syrian rebels in their battle with President Bashar al-Assad.
McCain said that “It’s immoral and shameful that somehow we’re playing footsy with the Iranians [now] in hopes they will somehow have an effect on ISIS,” McCain said.
He noted that Iran sponsored the influx of 5,000 Hezbollah fighters into southern Syria in 2013 and changed the balance of power when the Free Syrian Army was winning.
“This is not a strategy,” McCain said. “This is sort of an ad hoc reactionary failure.”
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