Senate hearing shows agreement on defeating Islamic State, not how to do it

Congress wants a strong authorization for use of military force against the Islamic State. But rifts are deep on what, exactly, that resolution should allow.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee (l.), flanked by the committee's ranking member Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, listens at a hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday, as Secretary of State John Kerry, center, back to camera, testifies. Three of America's top national security officials face questions on Capitol Hill about new war powers being drafted to fight Islamic State militants, Iran's sphere of influence and hotspots across the Mideast.

When America’s top officials on foreign and military affairs appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, they struck a note of harmony with their Senate inquisitors. Everyone could agree that an overwhelming bipartisan vote of congressional approval to use military force against the Islamic State would be a very good thing.

It would send a strong message of resolve to the leaders of the Islamic State, sometimes called ISIS or ISIL, said Secretary of State John Kerry. It would show support for America’s men and women in uniform, agreed newly appointed Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. It would also project a unified American voice abroad – and update congressional consent for force in the newest terrorism fight.

No disagreement with lawmakers there.

But wanting the same thing does not mean getting it, as the hearing also clearly showed. In the end, it may very well be that lawmakers will not agree on the wording of an authorization for use of military force (called an AUMF) against the Islamic State. The president would then have to continue on the basis of two force authorizations from 2001 and 2002 that many lawmakers believe do not apply to the IS situation.

The hearing revealed “there is a very strong difference of views” about a force authorization, said committee Chairman Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, after he emerged from the vast paneled room. “Obviously the path forward is somewhat difficult.”

You can take the word “somewhat” out of that last sentence.

Deep ideological and historical divisions are proving to be tough to bridge, despite the comity with which they were generally discussed. 

Republicans mostly shared a hawkish view that the draft of an IS force authorization submitted by the White House to Congress in February is too limiting. Democrats generally held the opposite view, and worried that the draft amounts to “a blank check.” 

One Republican invoked the sweeping congressional war authorization against Japan in 1941 that allowed the president to use “all of the resources of the country.” A Democrat referenced the “shock and awe” of the 2003 Iraq war – and the military quagmire that followed.

The subject of Iran added fuel to the fire. Always part of the discussion, it broke out into the open as senators on both sides asked about the danger of Iran’s involvement in the fight against IS, about the US negotiations with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, and about a GOP letter to the Iranian government that detonated like an atomic bomb in the Senate on Monday.

Secretary Kerry used a friendly question about the letter to read from a written statement and register his “utter disbelief” about the move, which he said defies the practice of “more than two centuries” in which presidents have negotiated international agreements. After five minutes, Senator Corker politely cut his “speech” short.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida drilled hardest on Iran. With staccato precision, the possible presidential contender hammered away at the trio, burnishing his credentials as Mr. Foreign Policy among potential GOP 2016 candidates. 

He asked about Iran’s goal of regional dominance, the effect of nuclear negotiations on the anti-IS fight, and about the corrosive effect these have had on the “trust level” toward the US in the region. Kerry flatly denied an erosion of trust and said “there is no grand bargain” with Iran on IS strategy and nuclear negotiations.

Several times General Dempsey said that he shared concerns about Iran, and that the test case for whether it will support multiethnic democracy in Iraq will be the ongoing battle to drive out IS from the Iraqi city of Tikrit.

Iranian assistance in fighting IS is “a positive thing,” he said, but the concern is about what happens “after the drums stop beating.” Will Iranian trained and equipped Shiite militias allow Sunnis to return to their villages? Or will they engage in atrocities and retribution? “We are watching carefully,” he said.

Specific words and terms of the president’s draft AUMF revealed considerable differences among the senators. Democrats zeroed in on the exclusion of “enduring offensive ground combat operations” from the authorization – wondering how elastic it is.

If it excludes something like an Afghanistan or Iraq war, as the president says, does it also exclude an operation like the first Gulf war, which lasted seven months? asked Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia, who said he was worried about "ground-troop creep."

Defense Secretary Carter’s answer was, basically, yes, it excludes it. That’s “not something we foresee," he said.

But Senator Corker came back to this very comparison toward the end of the hearing. “To me ... the AUMF would have allowed for that [operation]," which involved up to 700,000 US troops, he said. He also called it a "moral" issue that the AUMF draft does not provide for air protection for forces being trained to fight IS in Syria.

As the hearing drove to its three-hour conclusion, ranking member Sen. Robert Menendez stated the obvious: There isn't a Democrat or Republican who doesn't believe that IS should be defeated, he said. But it’s “a struggle to get the right wording.”

Indeed, an administration that sought to strike a middle ground with its draft seems instead to have opened up a chasm.

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