US sailors directF/A-18E Super Hornets on Aug. 1 on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) in the Arabian Gulf. So far, there has been no collective insistence from members of Congress that they should approve limited US airstrikes on Iraq, which began last week. (Joshua Card / US Navy via AFP)
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WASHINGTON — There is no groundswell from US lawmakers demanding President Barack Obama seek their approval for new airstrikes in Iraq, a sharp contrast from his flirtation with strikes in Syria.
Almost one year ago, Obama was considering enforcing his own “red line” with airstrikes on targets related to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal.
At that time, Republicans and Democrats alike were hooting and hollering on cable news, both chamber floors, and throughout the halls on Capitol Hill for Obama to let Congress vote on a measure authorizing any US strikes in Syria.
“While the administration has engaged in congressional consultation, they should continue to be forthcoming with information and would be far better off if they seek authorization based upon our national interests, which would provide the kind of public debate and legitimacy that can only come from Congress,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said following an Aug. 29, 2013, meeting with the president.
Obama could, as he did last year, ask Congress to approve his strikes on Islamic State targets In fact, Corker’s panel returned early last year from the annual August recess to craft and approve a Syria strikes resolution.
Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said last year that he would have returned to Washington “tomorrow” for a debate and vote on a Syria mission even though Congress was in recess.
“The Constitution grants the power to declare war to Congress, not the president,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said last year. “The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States, and victory by either side will not necessarily bring into power people friendly to the United States.”
Democrats like House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith of Washington and Senate Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Jack Reed of Rhode Island also raised concerns about the strikes in Syria that Obama had teed up — but ultimately did not order.
But so far, there has been no such collective insistence from members of Congress that they should approve Obama’s limited airstrikes on Islamic State targets. In fact, on the matter of signing off on the strikes, lawmakers have been surprisingly silent.
GOP: 'Don't Rule Anything Out'
Many Republicans simply want Obama to do much more militarily to counter the Islamic State.
House Homeland Security Committee member Peter King, R-N.Y., said Tuesday on MSNBC that his “main criticism of the president has been in saying what he’s not going to do.
“If you’re going to be a leader, you have to basically say we intend to stop ISIS and don’t rule anything out,” said King, a former chairman of the panel. “Now whether or not he wants to use ground troops, whether or not he wants to use certain weaponry, how he wants to do it, you don’t tell the enemy that.
“What I’m saying he should be doing is coming up with a conservative strategy with our allies in the region, with the Kurds, with the Iraqi army, and then deciding what he’s going to do,” King said. “But don’t tell [the Islamic State] what we’re going to do. ... It’s not enough just to save people on a mountain top in Kurdistan.”
And SASC members John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Tuesday in a joint statement that “it is far past time for President Obama to develop a comprehensive strategy to combat the threat posed by [the Islamic State].
“While the humanitarian aid efforts undertaken by the administration are an important first step, they should be accompanied by additional steps to degrade [the Islamic State’s] capabilities, including US air strikes against [the group’s] positions in both Iraq and Syria and the immediate provision of military assistance to our partners who are fighting against [the Islamic State],” the hawkish duo said. “Contrary to the administration’s rhetoric, commencing actions such as these now can strengthen political leaders in Baghdad who seek to form an inclusive government that can unify their country and better resist [the Islamic State].”
Dems: No Boots, No Vote
Democratic members are much more cautious in calling for increased US military actions against the violent Islamic extremist group. But they also are not calling for a congressional vote about the ongoing airstrikes.
On a Tuesday conference call, several House Democrats endorsed Obama’s airstrikes, saying he needs no congressional approval for them.
“I believe the president acted properly in taking immediately military action to protect our personnel ... that are in Irbil and the Kurdish area[s] of Iraq,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters.
House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee member Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said she “supported the president’s position and policy of limited and targeted assistance on the military side.”
The Islamic State’s bloody advance across north Iraq — which has seen members of the group target minority populations — “could lead to a broader regional conflict,” she said. “I hope the administration is very careful and doesn’t allow that to happen.”
The Democratic whip told reporters he would “go farther than Barbara that it is absolutely in the national security interests of the United States that the Kurdish area of Iraq” not fall to the Islamic State.
“We need to assist them in making sure they are not overrun by this radical, very vicious movement,” Hoyer said.
Hoyer and Lee drew their own red line of sorts on congressional authorization, however. They only believe such a move necessary should Obama decide to insert US ground troops, something he has repeatedly said he will not do.
“We are all in agreement” that Obama should not deploy “US boots on the ground,” Hoyer said. “Nor should they be without further action by the Congress.”
Lee said if Obama’s team decides to “change policy” by sending American ground forces back to Iraq, “they should come to Congress and have a debate and have the vote.”
“The American people are war-weary. Over $1 trillion has been spent on the Iraq war,” she said. “Everyone believes that [the Islamic State] is a dangerous group. ... [But] we darn sure don’t want to see our troops inserted into another war in Iraq.”
For Democratic members, the White House’s contention that the airstrikes are part of a humanitarian emergency to protect Yazidi Iraqis, a minority group that have fled up a mountain in northwest Iraq to hide from Islamic State forces, is sufficient.
“First, the president acted to protect American interest, particularly in Irbil when that city was threatened,” Reed said Tuesday in his own MSNBC appearance. “We have American diplomats there, we have other personnel there, and that was clearly to defend American interest and American lives.
“And then second, he recognized there was a humanitarian crisis with the people trapped and actually being attacked by [Islamic State forces],” Reed said. “And as a result, not only the United States but the international community has provided humanitarian assistance. That will be, I think, rather short in duration until those people are evacuated.”
Reed did not mention a need for congressional authorization. (Nor was he asked about it by the host.)
Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, in June mounted a charge that any new Iraq strikes would fall outside of the post-9/11 force authorization that Congress passed in September 2001. In a Washington Post op-ed and a passionate floor speech, Kaine argued a new resolution would be required under the law.
Since Obama announced the airstrikes last week, Kaine was silent until late Tuesday afternoon, when he released a statement calling for an authorization vote.
“I support providing humanitarian relief to Iraqi civilians and measures to protect American personnel, but I am concerned about the timeline and scope of our renewed military efforts in Iraq,” Kaine said “Since the Administration has conceded that the 2002 Iraq Authorization for Use of Military Force is obsolete and should be repealed, it is now up to the administration to receive congressional authorization for the current air campaign against [ISIL].
“This is especially the case since the President has indicated that our renewed military engagement in Iraq could be a long-term project,” he said. “I have long stressed that Congress must formally approve the initiation of significant military action.”
Academia: 'Why Not Now?'
But some national security scholars disagree.
Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor, noted in a recent blog post that Obama himself made perhaps the best case for a new military force authorization last year.
“The case for seeking congressional authorization in this context was made forcefully and persuasively less than a year ago by President Obama himself, when he explained why he was seeking congressional authorization prior to military strikes in Syria,” Goldsmith wrote.
He noted it was Obama who argued officials in Washington are best held accountable and America’s democracy is enhanced “with a vote.”
Goldsmith also pointed out that the Syrian strikes Obama initially described were to be “limited in duration and scope.”
But last weekend Obama made it clear he foresees these new Iraqi strikes as lasting months — or longer.
The timing difference made Goldsmith ask: “If this was true last year, why not now, with even greater force?
“I expect,” he wrote, “this question will be asked more and more in the coming days.”
So far, however, at least among lawmakers, the question is being answered with a rare bipartisan answer: a resounding no. ■