WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry asked Congress on Tuesday for new war powers in the fight against the Islamic State, but said lawmakers should not limit U.S. military action to Iraq and Syria or prevent President Barack Obama from deploying ground troops if he later deems them necessary.
In the U.S. battle against the Islamic militants, Obama has been relying on congressional authorizations that former President George W. Bush used to justify military action after 9/11. Critics say the White House's use of post-9/11 congressional authorizations is a legal stretch at best.
Obama has insisted that he had the legal authority to send about 3,000 U.S. troops to train and assist Iraqi security forces, and launch hundreds of airstrikes against targets in Iraq and Syria since September. More recently, the president has said that he wants a new Authorization for Use of Military Force, but Kerry's testimony is the first time an administration official has publicly outlined what elements the White House wants to see in a proposal.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined both Democrats and Republicans in lamenting that if the White House wants a new AUMF, it should have sent suggested language to Congress months ago.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., says he doesn't want Congress to go home for the holidays while there are U.S. service men and women fighting overseas and risking their lives, and wants to Congress vote to put its imprint on the conflict. "We are at war," Kaine said, adding, "Congress has been silent about this."
Menendez said he would call for a committee vote on a new authorization later this week. Still, few expect that Congress will approve new war powers before the end of the lame-duck session this year. In January, Republicans will control both the Senate and the House.
"Whatever passes out of committee this week is not going to become law," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the incoming chairman of the committee. He said the committee also wants to hear from intelligence and defense officials.
Kerry said the administration believes a proposal drafted by Menendez is a good starting point, but that the administration seeks some important changes.
Generally, Kerry said the administration is seeking an authorization that does not include a geographical limitation. The U.S. does not expect to take military action outside Iraq or Syria, but that "it would be a mistake to advertise to" the Islamic State militants that they have safe haven outside those countries.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he could not vote for any authorization that did not have geographic restrictions.
"That is a very scary and very wrong-headed message to be sending to the Middle East," he said. "You are sending a message to the Middle East that no city is off limits."
Kerry said that while the president does not intend to send combat forces to fight IS, "we should not bind the hands of the commander in chief."
Also, Kerry said that the confrontation against IS will not be over quickly and that while the administration does not seek an open-ended authorization, it wants it to include a provision that would allow for it to be extended.
Menendez's resolution would limit operations to three years and allow ground forces in some circumstances. It also would compel Obama to provide Congress with a comprehensive strategy and repeal the Bush administration's 2002 Iraq war authorization. Kerry said the administration would agree that any new authorization would supersede the 2002 authorization.
Moreover, Kerry said the administration wants to make sure that any authorization does not too narrowly define militants found alongside IS because it would, for example, make it difficult for the U.S. military officials on the ground to identify enemy forces.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a strong critic of Obama's foreign policy in Iraq and Syria, called the hearing a "kind of charade" because the authorization was not expected to become law before the new Congress starts in January. He said Obama needs to present a draft authorization to Congress in January. "He should lead and tell us what that authorization should be," McCain said.
McCain further criticized the Obama administration for not giving the Syrian opposition the military equipment and weapons it needs to fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad who is "slaughtering" his people.