Obama appears to be in conflict over law to fight ISIL

Despite plea to Congress in his State of the Union address, the US president has not pushed for legal authorisation of war on extremists.
President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of the US Congress as Vice President Joseph Biden, top left, and house speaker John Boehner look on. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / January 20, 2015
President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of the US Congress as Vice President Joseph Biden, top left, and house speaker John Boehner look on. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / January 20, 2015
NEW YORK // President Barack Obama has called on the US Congress to negotiate a new legal rationale to fight ISIL, addressing mounting criticism within both parties that authorisations passed in 2001 and 2002 to fight Al Qaeda no longer apply.

It comes as the number of US forces being sent back into Iraq steadily increases, with about 3,000 set to begin training Iraqi troops and about 1,000 more slated to train Syrian rebels.

Since the US-led coalition began fighting ISIL in August, the White House has been happy to rely on broad interpretations of the old congressional authorisations, which were enough to permit the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as drone and counterterrorism operations across the globe.

Mr Obama has repeatedly promised to work with Congress on a new authorisation, but has so far shown little intention of following through. A cornerstone of the president's stated foreign policy achievements has been the ending of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and he appears reluctant to put his name on a new war authorisation.

Even while calling for one in his state of the union address on Tuesday, Mr Obama made clear that it should not stray far from his current strategy. "I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorise the use of force" against ISIL, Mr Obama said.

"Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group."

But in the wake of a Republican takeover of Congress and a rapid shift in public opinion towards favouring a greater US role abroad, Mr Obama faces a complicated political landscape and increasing pressure over a new Authorisation to Use Military Force (AUMF).

Many Republicans support reported military recommendations that special operations forces be sent to the front line in Iraq to train and fight alongside Iraqi forces, and would push for an AUMF granting Mr Obama broad discretion, including the possibility of US ground troops.

But lawmakers in Mr Obama's own party have argued that any authorisation must explicitly prohibit ground forces fighting against ISIL and limit presidential power in order to avoid another open-ended war in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Congressmen who will be key to drafting a new AUMF - the senate foreign relations committee chairman Bob Corker and the armed services committee chairman John McCain - have said that it must address what they say is a lack of US strategy on fighting ISIL in Syria.

The US-led fight against ISIL has seen only limited success in rolling back the extremists, largely because the strategy is focused on Iraq and dodges the key question of how to weaken ISIL in Syria - where it is arguably strongest - and help create the political conditions that dry up Sunni support for the group.

Current US government policy on Syria backs away from previous demands that President Bashar Al Assad must step down, out of fear that a power vacuum would be filled by religious extremists. But without a political process that Syria's Sunnis buy into, there is little hope in defeating ISIL.

Similar calls for a new AUMF by Mr Obama in recent months have not been followed up with the White House sending a draft to congress. And after Tuesday's speech, administration officials again refused to give a time frame for the process.

"I hope that guidance is forthcoming soon," Democratic senator Tim Kaine said after the speech. "Five months of war has been far too long to make our servicemembers and their families wait for a political consensus on the scope of the US mission."

Republican senator Bob Corker, who now chairs the foreign relations committee, has previously said he thinks the lack of action is due to internal administration confusion over Syria policy.

But other observers say the anti-war president is thinking about his legacy. "Rhetorically, the president says he wants a new AUMF," Jack Goldsmith, a national security law professor at Harvard Law School, said on the Lawfare blog. "But rhetoric accompanied by non-action suggests that he wants to run out the clock without being burdened by one."

tkhan@thenational.ae

Published: January 22, 2015 04:00 AM

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