WASHINGTON // Can a divided US Congress agree on a war strategy for Iraq and Syria? Barack Obama’s decision to seek authorisation for the battle against ISIL extremists will test that question.
After insisting for months that he has all the authority he needs to launch the airstrikes already under way against the radical Islamist group, Mr Obama reversed course and called for a new authorisation for the use of military force a day after his party lost control of the senate.
“The world needs to know we are united behind this effort and the men and women of our military deserve our clear and unified support,” Mr Obama said on Wednesday at the White House.
While some lawmakers of both parties have advocated an authorisation vote since the airstrikes began in August, passage of a resolution will expose political fault lines over how and whether the US should conduct another war in the Middle East.
“It’s going to be very messy,” said James Jeffrey, Mr Obama’s former ambassador to Iraq, now an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They’re going to try to dictate specific tactics and strategies.”
Mr Jeffrey said the decision to seek an authorisation now — after saying for months it’s not needed — only weakens the hand of a president whose credibility on foreign policy matters has been undermined.
“The whole world thinks he wants to wimp out of war,” Mr Jeffrey said. “It’s another indication that he doesn’t want to own this,” he said of the battle against ISIL. “If you don’t want to own this, you’ve lost.”
Mr Obama first sought an authorisation from congress to launch strikes against Syrian government targets more than a year ago, after evidence surfaced that the regime of President Bashar Al Assad had used chemical weapons. He backed down weeks later, when Russia offered a plan to get Syria to surrender its chemical weapons and many in congress expressed opposition to airstrikes.
“There was no appetite on the Hill to become co-owners of the strategy toward Syria in 2013,” said PJ Crowley, a former state department spokesman in the Obama administration who is now a fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at George Washington University.
The administration has said the current attacks are not targeting the Syrian regime.
Several lawmakers said on Wednesday that they welcomed Mr Obama’s decision to seek authorisation.
The senate foreign relations committee will hold hearings on the US role in Iraq and Syria next week.
Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat, has said a congressional authorisation should be “appropriate in scope and duration to meet the threat and sustain the fight” without having an “indefinite duration”.
The authorisation may open splits within Mr Obama’s Democratic party. Many Democrats oppose any change that could open the way for putting US ground troops into the fight — a view Mr Obama has said he shares.
In September, legislators passed Mr Obama’s plan to arm and train Syrian rebels the administration approves as moderates. A number of Democrats were against that legislation.
Passing the resolution also will be difficult because of a divide between the political parties, with some Republicans pushing for a more robust US response that could include ground forces and the creation of a no-fly zone for the Assad regime.
Meeting on Friday
Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat who was one of the first lawmakers to seek a new authorisation, introduced a measure in September that would authorise airstrikes while prohibiting the deployment of US ground troops and limiting the operation to a year.
While Mr Obama said the session of congress should take up an authorisation resolution this year, he acknowledged that the debate may take time and “carry over into the next congress”.
The president has invited congressional leaders from both parties to the White House on Friday, and one of the topics will be the situation in Iraq and Syria. The head of US Central Command, army general Lloyd Austin, will discuss how the fight against ISIL is going.
Mr Obama “needs an authorisation from congress”, said Jane Harman, a former Democratic member of the House of Representatives intelligence committee who is now president of the Wilson Center, a Washington policy research institute. “It needs more buy-in from the American people in case this gets ugly.”
While lawmakers may differ on the details of a resolution, “there is a deal to be had here”, she said.
Mr Obama has approved airstrikes against the extremists who have seized swathes of Iraq and Syria. He has also deployed US military teams to assess and advise the Iraqi military.
He is carrying out the offensive under the use-of-force authorisation congress approved after the September 11 attacks, as well as under his constitutional powers as commander-in-chief.
“It’s too early to say” whether the US campaign against ISIL is succeeding, Mr Obama said on Wednesday. “It makes sense for us to make sure that the authorisation from congress reflects what we perceive to be not just our strategy over the next two or three months, but our strategy going forward,” he said.
* Bloomberg News