Here’s Why Congress Still Won’t Okay the Wars in Iraq and Syria
Policy + Politics

Here’s Why Congress Still Won’t Okay the Wars in Iraq and Syria

Flickr/C.M. Keiner

Congressional lawmakers--Democrats and Republicans alike--found little to like about the Obama administration’s announcement last Friday that it would send at least 50 U.S. troops into Syria. While the deployment means Washington will soon oversee military operations against ISIS in another Middle East country, Congress is unlikely to get in the White House’s way.

The U.S. Constitution mandates that Congress, not the executive branch, declare wars. The last time Capitol Hill approved an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) was after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The brief document allowed the U.S. to target Al Qaeda and associated forces.

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President Obama has leaned on the 14-year-old authorization as his legal justification for taking military action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria in part because Congress is so fearful they could share the blame if the war goes badly.

The president tried to put the onus on Congress earlier this year when he sent an AUMF tailored for ISIS and its allies to Capitol Hill. The document arrived with a thud, as members of both parties raised questions about language prohibiting “enduring” ground operations. The GOP thought the vague text tied the hands of military leaders, while Democrats believed it opened the door to another long-term U.S. commitment in the region.

Several administration officials, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry, made the case for the proposed AUMF, but their appearances before lawmakers only raised more questions.

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Both Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Corker (R-TN) and ranking members Ben Cardin (D-MD) suggested they might attempt to write a new war powers authorization after the passage of the Iran nuclear deal last October 18th, but fiscal battles have consumed Congress ever since members returned from August recess.

In a statement, Cardin said, “Continued reliance on the 9-11 AUMF to counter new and growing threats is not warranted.”

A new AUMF would face a serious skeptic in newly elected House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). “This commitment of U.S. forces must come with a coherent strategy to defeat ISIL. Otherwise, we are likely to see the same results in the region," he said in a statement Friday, using the other common acronym for the terror group. "I look forward to reviewing the details of this announcement.”

Other Republicans, both in Congress, and on the 2016 presidential campaign trail, have offered tepid praise at best for the new deployment. Some labeled it a step in the right direction while others called it too little too late, and, like Ryan, blaming the president for not having a concrete strategy to defeat extremists.

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Yet some Democrats think the administration’s decision has provided Congress an opportunity to reassert itself in the war making process and lawmakers should seize it.

“We are now one year, two months, and 23 days into an unauthorized and executive war. It is time for Congress to do its most solemn job – to debate and declare war,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations panels, said in a statement.

Kaine, who in the past has chastised even his Democratic colleagues over their inaction on the issue, said it’s also time for the administration to “detail to the America people a comprehensive strategy to bring both the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, which are metastasizing around the globe, to a peaceful end.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) went a step further, calling Obama’s decision a mistake.

"I firmly believe that the deployment of American ground forces in Syria is not the solution,” he said in a letter to Obama.