WASHINGTON — As far as Congress is concerned, President Barack Obama’s Mideast war strategy isn’t in the clear yet.
The president got what he wanted this past week when the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved arming and training moderate Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State militants. But the go-ahead is good for less than three months. And many lawmakers want a say over the rest of a plan featuring more than 1,600 U.S. military advisers in Iraq and airstrikes expanding into Syria.
Congressional authorization for military action is “long overdue,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat and the most senior member of Congress to question Obama’s legal basis for intervening in the Middle East. “We are living on borrowed time, and we are traveling on vapors.”
A showdown looms when lawmakers return to the Capitol after midterm elections — and no one knows yet how it’s going to play out.
Permission to prepare vetted Syrian opposition units as a ground force to complement U.S. airstrikes expires Dec. 11, at which point the training effort won’t even have begun. American military leaders say the operation needs up to five months to get off the ground. Authorization for the training program is also included in a version of this year’s defense policy bill, but its passage is not guaranteed.
Although some recent polls suggest a swing in U.S. attitudes toward backing foreign intervention, the scars of 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t fully healed. Public and congressional support may only be temporary, heated after the beheadings of two American journalists by Islamic State group militants. Twenty-two senators and 156 House members, Republican and Democrats included, opposed the provision last week. Several in both chambers said they voted “yes” half-heartedly.
“I know it’s not a perfect plan, but I think we need to start somewhere,” Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at a hearing.
November’s elections will have a significant impact. If Republicans win the Senate majority, they may delay reauthorization until January when newly elected senators are in place and they are able to leverage concessions from Obama on foreign and domestic policy matters, including possibly a new round of sanctions on Iran.
If they fail to net six seats and remain in the minority, Republicans may emerge less determined to cooperate with the president.
For Obama, Democrats are also unsteady allies now. Most in close Senate races voted for the Syrian training mission, but several leading doves bucked the trend. And many said they hoped to revisit the issue when Congress reconvenes.
In both parties, the specter of a 2016 presidential race will also begin to appear, with potential candidates jockeying for influence and staking out positions in defiance of party leaders who’ve all backed Obama on the issue up to now.
“We must now defend ourselves from these barbarous jihadists, but let’s not compound the problem by arming feckless rebels in Syria who seem to be merely a pit stop for the arms that are inevitably scarfed up by ISIS,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., one such possible candidate, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State group.
Calls for Congress to establish the legal parameters for fighting the militants come from both parties and cover the breadth of the political spectrum. There has been widespread rejection of the administration’s argument that it can operate on the basis of a 2001 law authorizing action against al-Qaida and its affiliates and a 2002 resolution for the Iraq war. The Islamic State group militants grew out of the al-Qaida movement, but the two alliances are now fighting. The Islamic State group didn’t exist at the time of either vote.
Conservatives such as Paul and liberal Democrats including Reps. Barbara Lee of Texas and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts cited the legal case in voting “no” on the Syrian training mission. Foreign policy centrists who supported intervention are joining the push for a broader authorization.
In the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the Democratic chairman, and Bob Corker of Tennessee, the panel’s top Republican, are considering a bill in the lame-duck session repealing what they call outdated authorizations for the use of force and replace them with a new one.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, isn’t committing yet to such a process. But many in his committee want similar action, prompting Secretary of State John Kerry to say the administration would cooperate if they move forward.
“We’re not trying to avoid that,” Kerry told the panel at a hearing this week. “It’d be very good for everybody.” Still, he insisted the administration had the legal right to launch attacks and that it couldn’t wait for Congress to act.
Kerry’s reasoning is justified, according to some members of Congress.
Given the body’s gridlock over just about everything and the party divisions caused by the war, any wider bill from lawmakers endorsing military action probably wouldn’t have gained passage — or at least not in the two weeks this month Congress was in session. Democratic leaders told the White House that Obama lacked the clout for anything beyond the training mission’s authorization, legislative aides said.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., haven’t said whether they’ll take up a broader authorization. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who hopes to replace Reid as the Senate majority leader, also isn’t committing to such a process; he was a major force in ensuring the training element of Obama’s plan be kept on a short leash.
“I lean toward giving the president more latitude, and some of my colleagues want to be more restrictive,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leading proponent of even more forceful military action, said. “I don’t know if we’ll work out those differences or not.”
Still, McCain faulted the Obama administration for not explicitly asking for Congress’ blessing on the larger war strategy. “This is going to be an extended conflict, and they’re going to need an authorization,” he said. “And they’re being very short-sighted by not asking for it.”
BRADLEY KLAPPER AND DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press