Defeating ISIS: Just a Skirmish or a War?
Policy + Politics

Defeating ISIS: Just a Skirmish or a War?

There is no shortage of lawmakers ready to complain about how the Obama administration has effectively declared war on the terrorist group ISIS without congressional assent – but there’s been a notable dearth of lawmakers willing to step up and propose that Congress actually do something about it.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA on Wednesday proposed a bill that would, in effect, declare war on ISIS and give the president three years to defeat the radical Islamic group that has taken over much of Syria and Iraq, murdering thousands of innocent civilians along the way.

Related: McCain Says Get Ready for U.S. Troops on the Ground in Iraq and Syria

“More than five months after strikes began against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, Congress has yet to debate and take a vote on an authorization to wage war, in clear abdication of our constitutional duties,” said Schiff, using the administration’s preferred acronym for the terror group. “There is no doubt our current offensive amounts to war, and Congress should take action both to authorize its prosecution and to set limits on that authorization…”

Schiff’s bill would impose a three-year limit on the prosecution of the war before requiring Congress to reauthorize it. It would also repeal two authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs), one passed after 9/11 and one passed before the U.S. invaded Iraq. The administration says those AUMFs give it the authority for airstrikes against ISIS without congressional approval.

The Schiff bill would also limit what the president can do: It would limit action against ISIS to Iraq and Syria, with an exception for training Syrian troops to fight ISIS, and it would bar the introduction of U.S. ground troops in a combat role.

Related: Republicans Rip Obama for Misleading Americans on ISIS

“ISIL represents a serious danger to the United States,” Schiff added. “With thousands of foreign fighters joining its ranks who have the ability to return to the United States and Europe, we have a compelling interest in stopping ISIL.” 

Whether Schiff’s effort goes anywhere is unclear. Political opponents of the Obama administration are in a sort of sweet spot on the question of ISIS. Not having bought into the strategy in a public way, they’re free to criticize it when things go wrong – yet they can still claim some credit for successes because Congress has continued to fund the effort.


Past AUMFs (Authorizations for the Use of Military Force) have been both open-ended and open to interpretation. The Schiff proposal would put the White House on a much shorter leash in committing U.S. troops abroad.

Currently Schiff has no co-sponsors for his bill. He said he’s reaching out to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Schiff’s restrictions on the use of U.S. force may be too much for some members of Congress who want to see a much more muscular response to the problem from the U.S. Over the weekend, Arizona Sen. John McCain blasted the administration for believing that it can subdue ISIS without thousands of U.S. ground troops.

“It is delusional for them to think that what they're doing is succeeding,” he said on CBS’s Face the Nation. “We need more boots on the ground. I know that is a tough thing to say and a tough thing for Americans to swallow, but it doesn’t mean the 82nd Airborne. It means forward air controllers. It means Special Forces. It means intelligence and it means other capabilities.”

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