War against Islamic State: 5 questions Obama will have to address

President Obama has asked Congress to grant him authority to use force against the Islamic State. The proposal raised questions among Republicans and Democrats.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Obama is flanked by Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd r.) and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (r.) as he delivers a statement from the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington Wednesday on legislation sent to Congress to authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State.

President Obama on Wednesday sent draft legislation to Congress seeking lawmakers' authorization for use of military force to fight the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

While the legislation allows the United States to use force against the Islamic State or “associated persons or forces,” it limits that authorization to three years and does not allow US military forces for any “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” The wording is meant to give the president wiggle room for targeted use of troops, such as rescuing a downed pilot, the White House says.

Members of Congress were glad to see the White House finally send them draft legislation (the US started airstrikes against the Islamic State in August). But it was immediately met with a barrage of concerns and questions from both sides of the aisle. 

What are Congress's concerns? Here are five: 

What’s the overall strategy to defeat the Islamic State?

Neither Democrats nor Republicans want to sign on the dotted line before knowing the administration’s overall strategy to defeat the Islamic State. What's the military objective? What will victory look like? What’s the responsibility of regional players? 

Humanitarian aid, intelligence, training of regional troops and Syrian rebels, as well as coalition forces all play a role, but how do those things fit together?

“Upcoming congressional hearings will provide the administration an opportunity to lay out their plan to defeat this radical Islamic terrorist threat,” said House majority whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R) of Louisiana in a statement.

Why tie the president’s hands? 

This concerns Republican hawks who worry about restrictions in the draft, such as the three-year time frame or the exclusion of combat troops involved in “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”

“Any authorization for the use of military force [AUMF] must give our military commanders the flexibility and authorities they need to succeed and protect our people. While I believe an AUMF against ISIL is important, I have concerns that the president’s request does not meet this standard,” House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio said in a statement. 

Why allow the president wiggle room? 

Just as hawks worry the president is limiting his options, many Democrats – and some odd-bedfellow libertarian Republicans – want more restrictions. They want to nail down the definition of “enduring” offensive ground combat operations. If the president means the ability to rescue a downed pilot, as the White House suggested, then say so.

What they don’t want is this president, or a future one – since the three-year time limit would apply to the start of the next administration, to deploy 100,000 troops for 18 months and then say that fits the not “enduring” definition because there’s an end date, explained Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee.

Other concerns include vague language authorizing force against forces or persons “associated” with the Islamic State – as well as the lack of limits on geographic location.

What about Syrian forces and President Bashar al-Assad

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R) of South Carolina poses this scenario: What if Mr. Assad’s forces bomb US-trained forces? Can the US strike back? Not according to the White House. “That is fatally flawed,” he says.

More broadly is the question of what to do about Assad himself. Syrian rebels would like the US to take out Assad. But the administration is reluctant to involve itself heavily in a civil war, one that includes many factions – factions that may well keep fighting even without Assad.

What about the 2001 authorization of force?

The draft legislation sent to Congress on Wednesday repeals the authorization for the use of force passed in 2002 for the Iraq invasion, but it keeps in place the 2001 post-9/11 authorization that led to the Afghanistan war.

This concerns Democrats such as Representative Schiff and Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.

The White House has argued that the 2001 and 2002 authorizations cover its current airstrikes – the 2001 authorization allows it to go after Al Qaeda and affiliates, while the 2002 authorization allowed the invasion of Iraq. It's only asking for fresh authorization because it wants to demonstrate broad bipartisan backing for fighting the Islamic State.

But when the proposed three-year authorization for the Islamic State expires, what’s to prevent a president from falling back on the 2001 authorization to keep on fighting? Doesn't the 2001 authorization pretty much obviate the need for the new draft legislation?

Such Democrats would like to also repeal the 2001 authorization, or at least get a commitment from the administration to do so. According to The Hill newspaper, the White House plans to also sunset the 2001 authorization, but it wants to deal with that separately. 

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