Congress wants President Barack Obama to go to war with ISIS. And they want a say.
After the brutal execution of American journalist Steven Sotloff added to the tally of American hostages killed by the jihadist group calling itself the Islamic State (also ISIS or ISIL), a bipartisan consensus has emerged in Congress to immediately begin debate on authorizing Obama to use force against ISIS militants in both Iraq and Syria.
“The war drums definitely seem to be beating,” one congressional aide told Business Insider.
Gone is the hesitation and reluctance in Congress to intervene in the Syrian civil war as it displayed last year when Obama wanted to strike regime targets. Last month, the White House launched airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, but now, members of both parties want Obama to expand the mission against the group into Syria, where the U.S. has refused to intervene for more than three years.
Even some of the most typically dovish members of Congress, like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), are calling on Obama to quickly develop a strategy to confront and defeat the group.
The apparent confusions and contradictions that came when Obama articulated his strategy for ISIS a day after Sotloff’s execution have added to the congressional frustration with the White House. After the president’s highly criticised remark that his administration doesn’t yet “have a strategy” to comprehensively confront ISIS, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota), who has been typically supportive of the administration’s foreign policy, said in a letter to the Department of Justice on Wednesday that he was “concerned” about Obama’s remark.
Speaking in Estonia on Wednesday, Obama attempted to clarify his comment about the “strategy” for confronting ISIS. He indicated he has not decided about what military operations he would ask Congress to approve against the group in Syria.
“Last week when this question was asked, I was specifically referring to the possibility of the military strategy inside of Syria that might require congressional approval,” said Obama. “It is very important from my perspective that when we send our pilots in to do a job, that we know that this is a mission that’s going to work, that we’re very clear on what our objectives are, what our targets are; we’ve made the case to Congress and we’ve made the case to the American people; and we’ve got allies behind us so that it’s not just a one-off, but it’s something that over time is going to be effective.”
Though Obama has not yet authorised any specific action against the group in Syria, many of his top military advisers have recommended such action be part of a larger plan to confront the group. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday he will introduce legislation next week that would authorise Obama to carry out airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.
“This will ensure there’s no question that the president has the legal authority he needs to use airstrikes in Syria,” Nelson said in a statement. “Let there be no doubt, we must go after ISIS right away because the U.S. is the only one that can put together a coalition to stop this group that’s intent on barbaric cruelty.”
And in the House, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) is planning to introduce legislation that would provide the president with authorization to use force against ISIS, as well as Al Qaeda, its regional affiliates, and other terrorist groups, including al-Shabaab and Boko Haram in Africa.
“This resolution would provide clear authority for the president and our military, working with coalition partners, to go after these terrorists, whether in Syria, Iraq, or elsewhere,” Wolf said in a statement. We cannot continue operating on outdated authorities passed 13 years ago. It is time for this Congress to vote.”
According to the U.S. military’s Central Command, the limited airstrikes Obama authorised against ISIS in Iraq have, as of now, included a total of 124 airstrikes against the group in that country since Aug. 8. The White House says the airstrikes in Iraq have been carried out pursuant to Obama’s authority as commander in chief.
Obama first notified Congress of military action in Iraq on Aug. 8 under the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which gives the president a 60-day window to carry out military operations before coming to Congress for approval. The administration hasn’t specified whether it would seek congressional authorization beyond that 60-day window, which would expire on Oct. 7. White House Press secretary Josh Earnest has said vaguely, when asked various times, that the president has and will continue to consult with Congress on U.S. military action.
Two complicating factors for Congress are time — and timing. Congress will return next Monday from its recess, but it has a full plate of legislation to tackle already, including passing a continuing resolution to keep the government funded past Sept. 30. Vulnerable members of Congress representing war-weary districts of America are also wary of a vote authorizing military action in an election year. Two congressional aides said they worry about the possibility of there being “little appetite” for a vote.
If he pushes for it, congressional aides say, Obama will likely get his authorization — though many members of Congress want that long-awaited strategy to be laid out. Obama will need to come to Congress with defined goals and objectives.
“This tragedy reinforces what I have long said — that this administration should come to Congress with clear objectives and scope of mission to combat the ISIL threat, and Congress should immediately debate an authorization to use military force,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday of Sotloff’s killing.
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