Why Congress Is Neglecting the War on ISIS
Policy + Politics

Why Congress Is Neglecting the War on ISIS


One year ago this week, President Obama formally launched a U.S.-led assault on ISIS, vowing to “degrade and eventually destroy” the blood-thirsty, highly expansionistic Islamic jihadist group in Iraq and Syria.

Related: Why Congress Should Simply Bag the War Powers Debate

Republican and Democratic leaders pressed Obama to submit his plan to Congress for review and a vote to provide him with fresh authorization for military action.

However, after an initial uproar over the beheading of three Americans by ISIS and the mass killings of Christians, Kurds and Shiite Muslims, many lawmakers began to steer clear of the issue, especially amid signs that the military effort was not going well and that it would be long and costly.

After more than a decade of disappointing warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, it seemed unfathomable that Congress would allow any president to pursue a dangerous new course in the war against Islamic terrorism without weighing in. Yet little is said about it on Capitol Hill these days and Congress has placed the issue on the legislative backburner, well behind the U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement, the highway bill, cyber security, spending on Planned Parenthood and even whether to allow the display of the Confederate flag in government gift shops.

This is why Sen. Tim Kaine (R-VA), a major proponent of new war powers authority for the president, took the Senate floor on Wednesday and berated his colleagues for having neglected the war against ISIS.

“Although vested with the sole power to declare war by Article I of the Constitution, Congress has refused a meaningful debate or vote on the war against the Islamic State,” Kaine, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in his speech. “A Congress quick to criticize any executive action by the president has nevertheless encouraged him to carry out an unauthorized war.”

Related: More Than 5,000 Airstrikes and ISIS Is as Strong as Ever

Furious that the Senate and House would depart on a one-month recess while leaving critical decisions behind, Kaine argued that Congress owes it to the thousands of U.S. troops laying their lives on the line in Iraq to renew the president’s authorization for military force.

“A debate in Congress by the people’s elected representatives and a vote to authorize the most solemn act of war is how we tell our troops that what they’re doing, what they’re risking their lives for has purpose, has meaning, and has the support of the American people,” Kaine said.  “Otherwise, we’re asking them to risk their lives without even bothering to discuss whether the mission is something we support.”

Kaine and a few others upset about Congress’s seeming indifference to the war have their work cut out for them in renewing the debate in the face of largely negative developments in Iraq and Syria.

Late last month, the Associated Press reported that intelligence agencies believe ISIS forces haven’t grown weaker in the year since the U.S. and its allies launched more than 5,600 airstrikes. ISIS’s likely troop strength is between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters, which is almost exactly where it was a year ago.

Related: Congress Lets Obama Go It Alone to Fight ISIS

What’s more, the war has cost $3.2 billion through mid-July, an average of $9.4 million a day, according to the Defense Department. And seven American service members have lost their lives serving in support of the mission.

Recently, Turkey opened up a military base to the U.S. for launching air strikes against ISIS. With access to the Incirlik base located 60 miles from the northwestern Syrian border, U.S. aircraft and armed drones can be more quickly and efficiently launch against ISIS targets in their northern Syrian strongholds.

There have also been reports that the administration may broaden the scope of the war to defend U.S.-trained Syrian fighters against attacks, including from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Each of these steps is potentially significant and could lead to even more unforeseen expansions of the ongoing war,” Kaine said. “We have already had testimony by military leaders to suggest that the war will likely go on for years. But as the war expands and our troops risk their lives far from home, and as we prepare to go on our traditional one-month recess, a tacit agreement to avoid debating this war persists in Washington.”

 Related: U.S. Price Tag for War on ISIS Now More than $3 Billion

Congress has struggled almost from the beginning in deciding how best to respond. In December 2014, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to authorize Obama’s war against ISIS, which was the first vote in Congress to explicitly grant him war powers in the fight against the militant extremists. It was one of the final acts of the Senate while the Democrats were still in control.

After the GOP assumed power in Janaury, the new Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) pressed Obama to formally seek new war powers, although the president argued that he already had sufficient authority. 

Last February, Obama submitted to Congress proposed war powers legislation that imposed a three-year limitation on American action and specified largely an air war against ISIS forces. The new policy would allow Special Operations missions to pursue enemy forces on the ground. But it pretty much ruled out any sustained large-scale ground combat.

The legislation would also repeal the expansive 2002 congressional measure authorizing the Bush administration’s war in Iraq.

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

Not surprisingly, many Republican defense hawks said the plan was too soft while Democrats complained the language was too flexible and might allow Obama and his successor to lead the country once again into the quicksand of the Middle East.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN), who favored a much tougher approach than the president’s plan, attempted to forge a bipartisan agreement on new language, but eventually gave up. He told The Fiscal Times at the time that “We don’t know of a single Democrat that supports that authorization of the use of military force.” Corker indicated that lawmakers were perfectly content to stand aside and allow Obama to fight the war as he saw fit.