With an OK from Congress, the US Can Declare War on ISIS
Policy + Politics

With an OK from Congress, the US Can Declare War on ISIS


Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday vowed that the U.S. government would pursue the terrorist group ISIS “to the gates of Hell” – while President Obama defined the mission as one to “degrade and destroy” them.

In the wake of the brutal murder of a second American journalist by ISIS, which defines itself as a new “caliphate” in the Middle East, official calls have intensified to rein in the Islamic fundamentalist movement that has brought slaughter and chaos to parts of Iraq and Syria.

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Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY) this week condemned the beheading of journalist Steven J. Sotloff and called for an international coalition to defeat the extremist group.

“Sadly, ISIS is bringing this barbarity across the region – beheading and crucifying those who don’t share their dark ideology," said Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “If we don't disrupt and defeat it," warned Engel, the ranking Democrat on the committee, “[ISIS] will attack homelands all over the world.”

For all the outrage, two big questions remain: What precisely is the Obama administration prepared to do to contain or destroy the Islamic State, and will Congress grant the president all the war powers authority he wants or needs?

Obama began to outline his strategy at a press conference in Estonia Wednesday morning, en route to a NATO summit in Wales. Obama said that if the U.S. can enlist the support of the international community, “we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem,” according to The New York Times and other media.

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“Our objective is clear, and that is: degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat, not just to Iraq but also to the region and to the United States,” Obama said, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, meanwhile, told CNN in Newport, R.I., that the mission is specifically to “degrade and destroy the capability of ISIL to come after U.S. interests all over the world, and our allies.” Hagel was vague on how great a threat ISIS poses to U.S. interests, particularly within U.S. territory, The National Journal noted.

“We are aware of over 100 U.S. citizens who have U.S. passports who are fighting in the Middle East with ISIL forces,” he said. “There may be more, we don’t know.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean there is a direct threat from ISIS right now to the homeland.

In Maine on Wednesday morning, Vice President Joe Biden gave a colorful explication of the country’s aims with regard to ISIS. “The American people are so much stronger, so much more resolved than any enemy can fully understand,” he said. “As a nation we are united and when people harm Americans we don’t retreat, we don’t forget. We take care of those who are grieving and when that’s finished, they should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice because hell is where they will reside.”

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Obama, however, has repeatedly insisted that stepped-up and expanded air strikes against ISIS forces in Iraq or Syria would not mean a reintroduction of ground troops except to protect U.S. interests in those areas. Last week, he was clear that there would be no major escalation of the U.S. response to ISIS without Congress’ involvement, which has been in recess since the end of July. During his interview, Hagel also said the president would seek congressional cooperation, saying he wants the “legal authority” to act against ISIS.

Despite criticism of the president for failing to take stronger action already, some lawmakers argue that for both practical and political purposes, that is the best plan.

Last weekend, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) urged the president to resist calls for immediate action, saying there is “too much emphasis on acting now.” Obama, he said, is right to wait for Congress to come up with a bipartisan plan. “Make everybody put their fingerprints on this,” Cole said.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) said Wednesday he would introduce the “Authorization for Use of Military Force against International Terrorism Act,” giving the president broad authority to take action against terrorists. The bill would allow the president “with the close consultation, coordination, and cooperation with NATO and regional allies to use all necessary and appropriate force against those countries, organizations, or persons associated with or supporting terrorist groups.”

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“For far too long the Obama administration and the Congress have been debating whether or not authority exists for action to address this threat,” Wolf said. “This resolution would provide clear authority for the president and our military, working with coalition partners, to go after these terrorists.”  

Michael O’Hanlon, foreign policy expert with Brookings Institution, said Congress basically has two options for responding to the ISIS crisis in Iraq and Syria:

1. Approve Obama’s request for $500 million of supplemental funds to train and arm the moderate Free Syrian Army and use the measure to grant expanded authority.

2. Debate and vote on major authorization legislation – along the lines of Wolf’s bill – spelling out the administration’s expanded role.

The administration submitted its request in late June, when the conflicts in Syria and Iraq became increasingly intertwined with the rapid growth of ISIS and its murderous drive to amass land in Iraq and Syria. Obama said his funding request was aimed at strengthening more moderate Syrian rebels.  

O’Hanlon believes congressional action on the president’s budget request would be the best and most expeditious way for Congress to respond. It would give the administration time to provide supporting documentation and witnesses to back up the request and spell out the mission.

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“The point is that if these things were explained as different pieces of a whole, my view is that the Congress would be essentially participating in the decision simply by approving that half billion dollars to the Syrian opposition,” said O’Hanlon.

Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, has argued that the administration should seek separate authorization for any U.S. military action in Syria. “I think Congress, if they approve the money for the Free Syrian Army, that does not include an all-out air war to support them. I think they should be separate votes,” Korb said Tuesday on MSNBC.

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However, debating and passing major authorization legislation will be difficult and time consuming. And with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) eager to wrap up work well before the Nov. 4 election, Congress could end up signaling its views on ISIS in the supplemental defense spending bill.

Asked whether he thought the beheadings would galvanize or motivate members coming back, Brookings’ O’Hanlon said, “Not enough to fundamentally counter their skittishness. All of us are feeling outrage and disgust and sadness the first day. But everyone knows that if you get into a war like this you might implicate yourself in even more loss of American life. The beheadings are obviously significant and terrible, but I don’t think they will be a game changer in and of itself. “

Arguably the bluntest reaction came from Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, who was asked about the ISIS beheading at a veterans event in Chicago. “We should bomb the hell out of them,” said the Republican lawmaker.

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