WASHINGTON -- There is "no way possible" for the White House's proposed Islamic War authorization measure to lead to a third massive US military ground conflict in the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry told senators Tuesday.
Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a White House-crafted authorization of the use of military force (AUMF) would authorize "no long-term combat." He added the Obama administration is not asking "to build up to a new Iraq or Afghanistan."
"That's not what we're doing," he said.
His comments come two weeks after the White House sent Congress an AUMF that would "not authorize the use of the United States armed forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations."
But lawmakers from both parties say that the language is too legally murky because, as committee Ranking Member Robert Menendez, D-N.J., put it, "the definition of what that is is problematic."
Searching for just where on the spectrum of armed conflict the White House-crafted AUMF would draw a line across which military forces could not go, several committee members pressed Kerry.
About 90 minutes into a hearing on the State Department's 2016 budget request, the secretary said of the draft AUMF's ground-troops section there is "no way possible for this language … to allow for the kind of mission creep to take us into a longer war."
He also told the panel that under the Obama's administration's war plan, US military advisors might be with Iraqi forces directly engaging Islamic State fighters, adding the proposed authorization measure would cover that.
In a letter to lawmakers that accompanied the draft AUMF, President Barack Obama stated his draft AUMF "would not authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operations like those our Nation conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan."
"Local forces, rather than U.S. military forces, should be deployed to conduct such operations," Obama wrote, adding his version proposes "the flexibility" for US ground forces to do "limited" missions.
Kerry walked a tightrope at times on Tuesday, defending the ground-forces language while also urging the senators to make changes to the White House's proposal that allow the commander in chief flexibility in waging the conflict.
The secretary asked the panel to write an AUMF with language "broad enough" to allow Obama and the next president to "get the job done" over the three-year authorization period it seeks.
"If you're going in for weeks and weeks of combat, that's enduring," Kerry said. "If you're going in to assist somebody and fire control and you're embedded in an overnight deal, or you're in a rescue operation or whatever, that is not enduring."
Members also pressed Kerry to define another part of the White House's plan for fighting the violent Sunni group on which they have concerns: How do senior US officials intend to carry out the "degrade and destroy" part.
GOP members wanted to know just how the administration defines "defeat."
Kerry defined it as "eliminate their presence on battlefield" and take away the group's threat to the United States and "others."
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., pressed the secretary on whether the proposed authorization would allow US forces to defend Syrian rebels that get American equipment and training.
Kerry replied that Obama has yet to make that determination.
Later, however, Kerry told senators "we all have to come together on the Syria piece of all this," referring to the Islamic State fight and his department's humanitarian assistance budget.
The Obama administration earlier this month sent a draft authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) to Capitol Hill that would place limits on US ground forces, allow the executive branch to go after the Islamic State anywhere it deems necessary and limit US operations to three years. It also would sunset the 2002 AUMF for the Iraq war, while leaving a post-9/11 authorization on the books.
Some in Washington doubt Congress, stymied for six years by partisan bickering and intraparty squabbling, can pass a major piece of legislation like a war-authorization measure.
Republican and Democratic members have told CongressWatch they want the White House to take the lead in explaining to skeptical members and the American public why an Islamic State-specific AUMF is necessary.
Kerry replied "yes" when asked by Corker whether the White House believes it already has legal cover in fighting the Islamic State.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she is unsure the proposed AUMF "reflects your strategy." Rather, she concludes it is an attempt to get enough votes to pass both chambers.
She said she and other Democrats view the proposed measure as opening the door to "an open-ended conflict."
Boxer also concisely described the challenge facing the White House and AUMF proponents in getting something passed: Democrats want strict limitations, while Republicans want very few.