​Kerry, Carter, Dempsey want war with ISIS, Senate isn’t convinced

Reuters / Jim Young
Three officials at the top of the Obama administration urged members of Congress this week to approve a bill that would authorize the United States to take greater military action against the Islamic State.

Eight months after the White House authorized the Pentagon to begin a limited military campaign against the extremist group, a hearing on Wednesday made clear that Congress’ take on the matter remains anything but unanimous.

At the meeting of the bi-partisan Senate Foreign Relations Committee, three witnesses appearing on behalf of the administration – US Secretary of State John Kerry, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter – faced questions from a divided group of lawmakers who seem unwavering for now with regards to agreeing on the president’s proposal for a new Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) to expand the war against the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS/ISIL).

Secretary of State John Kerry told the panel that while he believes the administration is authorized to attack ISIS in accordance with past AUMFs, a bipartisan agreement on a new plan is imperative – not just for defeating the group, but also for sending a message.

“Approval of this resolution would encourage our friends and partners in the Middle East; it would further energize the members and prospective members of the global coalition we have assembled to oppose ISIL; and it would constitute a richly deserved vote of confidence in the men and women of our armed forces. Your unity would also send an unmistakable message to the leaders of ISIL – who must understand that they cannot divide us; they cannot intimidate us; and they have no hope of defeating us,” Kerry testified.

An American-led military campaign against the Islamic State started last summer, and the 62-nation coalition created to degrade and destroy the group has conducted nearly 3,000 airstrikes since the start of the operation. The White House says all anti-ISIS activities waged so far by the United States have been done so lawfully under the AUMF passed by Congress in 2001, following 9/11. However, President Obama has asked lawmakers to approve a new bill that focuses more narrowly on America’s ever-emerging enemy.

While both Democrats and Republicans on the committee agreed with the witnesses that the Islamic State needs to be eliminated, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have taken issue with the president’s plan.

Among causes of concern for the GOP – evidenced by Wednesday’s hearing, at least – are a three-year time limit on anti-ISIS activities, as proposed by the White House, and any assistance that may be offered to neighboring Iran on account of approving a war powers act absent of geographical restrictions.

Obama’s war authorization request against ISIS in limbo, even with Democrats

Democrats, meanwhile, largely seem nervous that authorizing a new AUMF that isn't precisely defined will once again place the US in a situation similar to that which occurred in Iraq, where the use of force lingered on for more than a decade after the 2001 bill was signed.

Carter, whose tenure as secretary of the Defense Dept. began only this year, told the committee that he agrees the proposal provides both “the authority and flexibility needed to prevail in this campaign” by taking into account “a full range of likely military scenarios” without opening the door for a decade-long operation as witnessed with the Iraq war.

“Passing the proposed AUMF will demonstrate to our personnel that their government stands behind them,” Carter said. “And, as Secretary Kerry explained, it will signal to our coalition partners and to our adversary that the United States government has come together to address a serious national challenge.”

Gen. Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, acknowledged that America’s efforts in the anti-ISIS campaign needn’t necessarily outshine those of its coalition partners, adding that “US forces involved should principally be enabling, and not necessarily leading” the campaign.

“As far as declaring victory against ISIL, that’s not for us to declare,” Dempsey said later on during the hearing.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), the committee’s chair, acknowledged at the start of the hearing that he doesn't know of a single Democrat in Congress who favors the White House’s proposal. At the same time, however, that party’s ranking member – Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) – said Wednesday that it is imperative for Congress to come to an agreement and authorize a plan of action. Meanwhile, the US continues to wage airstrikes which are absent of any approval from Washington.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), however, said the US is responsible for roughly 80 percent of the 2,800 or so airstrikes waged against the Islamic State since August. He also warned that the ramping-up of operations would surely involve a starring role for America.

Regardless, the Pentagon chief said that accomplishing any defeat will not depend on the strength with which the US and coalition partners strike the group militarily, but on whether or not the extremists’ ideology can be rejected.

The Dept. of Defense is taking direct action against ISIS in the form of airstrikes and building up the ability of Iraq’s security forces and tribal leaders to take on the extremists, Dempsey said, “but the ideology has to be defeated by those in the region” for the war to be won.

Obama has said he does not wish to have US ground troops battling ISIS in Iraq or Syria, and some critics have responded by stating that restrictions would limit the Pentagon’s ability to diminish the group. Nevertheless, the administration’s top military brass say the proposed AUMF is flexible enough to ensure the US is given adequate means to act. At one point on Wednesday, Carter said the president’s proposal strikes a balance by imposing restrictions but at the same time allowing the US to anticipate a wide enough range of possible contingencies.

According to one lawmaker on the Senate panel, ultimately any agreement reached by Congress will have to be vague in order to make it to the president’s desk.

“We all recognize that we may have to endure some sort of ambiguity in the language...in exchange for a resolution that can pass with a bipartisan majority,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) acknowledged at one point during the hearing.