President Barack Obama is asking Congress for authorization to fight the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and beyond without ruling out ground troops, opening a debate on Capitol Hill over the extent of U.S. military involvement in fighting a group that Obama says poses a “grave threat” to national security.
“With violent groups like this, there is only one option,” Obama said at the White House. “With our allies and partners, we are going to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.”
Obama said his request — which would expire after his successor takes office — does not call for the deployment of ground troops to Iraq or Syria and is not “authorization of a ground war like Afghanistan or Iraq.”
But he does call for ground troops in “more limited circumstances.” That could include the use of special-operations forces against the group’s leadership, Obama said.
“We need flexibility, but we also have to be careful and deliberate,” he said. “And there’s no heavier decision than asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives on our behalf.”
Obama said the authorization was written after consultations with Democrats and Republicans in Congress. He said it can win bipartisan support and show “the world that Americans are united in this mission.”
But the White House faces the daunting task of satisfying disparate factions in Congress over the depth and scope of his request. Several Democrats want to further limit the use of ground troops in the Middle East, while some hawkish Republicans want no restriction on the use of forces.
Obama also faces criticism from nearly every side that the White House hasn’t produced a coherent strategy for combating the Islamic State.
“I’m not even quite sure what our policy is,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “The question I keep asking is, ‘How does this all end?’ And I can’t seem to get a satisfactory answer. We’ve been at war in the Middle East for a long, long, long time, and I’m not sure we have very much to show for it.”
Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said: “The challenge is not just there between people who want to do something and people who want to do nothing. It’s between people who want to do more of something and people who want to do less of something.”
Indeed, while some, such as McGovern, said the proposed authority is too broad, others said it does not go far enough and appears to handcuff the military.
“Rather than expanding his legal authority to go after [the Islamic State], the president seems determined to ask Congress to further restrict the authority of the U.S. military to confront this threat,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
No ‘enduring’ troop presence
Obama said the authority would allow the U.S. to keep waging airstrikes and to provide support and training for Iraqi forces and the moderate Syrian opposition.
“I’m convinced that the United States should not get dragged back into another prolonged ground war in the Middle East. Local forces on the ground who know their countries best are best positioned to take the ground fight to ISIL, and that’s what they’re doing,” Obama said, using the government’s preferred acronym for the terrorist group.
The authorization stops short of allowing for what Obama called an “enduring” troop presence but would permit ground forces in “limited circumstances.”
That could include rescues or military action by special-operations forces against the group’s leadership, Obama said. In a letter to Congress, the president said the move would also authorize the use of U.S. forces when ground combat operations are not expected, such as intelligence collection and sharing.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged that the language was left fuzzy so Obama and the military can have flexibility.
But it may prove a sticking point with lawmakers.
“Vague language is going to be a concern for everybody about limiting ground troop introduction,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. “If not for this president, for future presidents.”
The authorization includes no geographic limits, in essence allowing the U.S. to strike members of the group outside its current theaters in Iraq and Syria.
The administration doesn’t “want to send a signal to ISIL that they may be able to establish a safe haven somewhere else,” Earnest said.
Obama proposes having the provision expire in three years, unless it’s reauthorized, guaranteeing that it will play a role in the 2016 presidential campaign.
He said the expiration date is not a timetable and called it “conceivable that the mission is completed earlier,” a prospect that military officials, who predict a yearslong campaign, have said is unlikely.
‘I don’t think we know’
Deliberation could take weeks, but lawmakers moved quickly to consider the request.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee planned a hearing for today. Republican senators met late Wednesday to review the proposal and appeared to have more questions than answers.
“What is important is, What is the president going to do with this authorization? What is he going to do to be successful in Syria?” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said after the meeting. “I don’t think we know what that is right now.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that the Senate will review the request “thoughtfully” and that senators and committees will “listen closely to the advice of military commanders as they consider the best strategy for defeating ISIL.”
Obama’s proposal would repeal the 2002 authorization that paved the way for the war in Iraq. But it would leave in place the broader September 2001 authorization of military force that allowed for the invasion of Afghanistan — targeting those responsible for the 9-11 attacks.
In his letter, Obama pledged to work with Congress “to refine, and ultimately repeal, the 2001 AUMF.”