Can the U.S. Defeat ISIS Without a War Powers Deal?
Policy + Politics

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

President Obama may have announced his choice of Ashton B. Carter as the next secretary of defense, but he and Congress are still nowhere near agreement on new presidential war powers for a critical campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Though he first said he had adequate military force authorization from two measures adopted after the 9/11 attacks, Obama more recently agreed to work with Congress on a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). It would establish ground rules and a timetable for attempting to crush ISIS forces with stepped-up airstrikes and training and arming rebel forces in Syria.

Related: Obama’s New Defense Chief Is Brilliant, But Is He a Smart Choice?

Yet at this point neither the White House nor GOP congressional leaders seem eager to begin the tough bargaining required to draft acceptable terms of engagement – and many observers say there’s virtually no chance of action before the new Congress convenes in January.

With so much at stake in the Middle East in terms of the balance of power and the mounting threat of renewed terrorist attacks against U.S. and other western interests, one would think lawmakers and White House officials would be anxious for a meaningful dialogue on how to proceed. That’s not the case.

Some lawmakers, however, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) – a potential 2016 presidential candidate – and Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut are looking for any opening during the lame duck session to promote their ideas on a new war powers authorization.

Related: The New U.S. Price Tag for the War Against ISIS: $40 Billion a Year   

Yesterday, Paul and Kaine tried to use a Foreign Relations Committee meeting considering diplomatic confirmations and a bill to help poor countries gain access to clean water to promote their war powers proposals. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who will take over in January as chair of the Armed Services Committee, described the session as “the most bizarre meeting of the Foreign Relations Committee that I have ever attended in my life.”

Paul, a libertarian who has opposed most military interventions, now favors a declaration of war against ISIS as part of a larger prescription for continued U.S. military engagement in Syria and Iraq. He agreed to hold back his proposal only after Menendez agreed to schedule a hearing next Monday and a vote next Wednesday on war power proposals, Roll Call reported. Paul and others are also expected to offer their proposals as amendments to new defense authorization legislation that likely will be brought to the Senate floor next week.

In a statement accompanying his proposal, Paul said the U.S. war on ISIS is “illegal” until Congress formally acts. Under his approach, the Obama administration would be authorized to continue fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, while limiting the use of ground troops to rare occasions, such as protecting Americans under siege.

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

Obama has pledged not to put U.S. “boots on the ground,” although he’s approved the deployment of up to 3,000 military advisers in that region. Paul’s proposal would also have a three-year expiration date to give Congress the opportunity to reassess how the war was proceeding.

Why This Matters
There are plenty of things to iron out as the U.S. enters a new phase in its war against terrorists in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. But with the possibility that the U.S. airstrikes and training of friendly allies could cost $40 billion to $50 billion a year and that Obama may eventually renege on his “no boots on the ground” pledge, Congress has put off most decision making until next year. The U.S. is moving slowly, while ISIS is moving like a high-speed train

A proposal by Menendez would allow the president to use the military as he deems “necessary and appropriate” against ISIS but would prohibit “ground combat operations, and, like Paul’s approach, would limit the authorization to three years,” The Washington Post reported. Kaine’s approach would approve “all necessary and appropriate force,” while only including airstrikes and setting a one-year limit on the authorization.

Obama mentioned the ongoing fight by the U.S. and its allies to try to “degrade and destroy” ISIS forces – which have captured large swaths of Syria and Iraq – in announcing his nomination of Carter to succeed Chuck Hagel, the current Defense Secretary who was forced out.

The president described Carter – a trained physicist, academic and former deputy defense secretary with vast experience with military budgets and weapons systems – as one of the nation’s “foremost national security leaders.”

Related: Democrats Fractured Over Obama’s War Powers

The president said nothing about Hagel, who did not attend the White House ceremony. Hagel frequently was left out of national security team deliberations on war strategy, which may have been why Carter signaled today he would express his opinions directly to the president. “If confirmed in this job, I pledge to you my most candid strategic advice,” he said to Obama.

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