Debate over using military force against Islamic State is 2016 foreign policy test

By NIELS LESNIEWSKI AND HUMBERTO SANCHEZ | CQ-Roll Call | Published: February 9, 2015

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Congress is gearing up — belatedly — for a full-throated war debate that will serve as a proving ground for potential presidential candidates heading into 2016.

With a draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force against the Islamic State group expected on Capitol Hill by the middle of the week as lawmakers complete their work before a weeklong Presidents Day recess, the debate over how much authority to give President Barack Obama will soon take center stage.

The issue will provide opportunities for jockeying among those senators seeking their party’s nomination for president, including Lindsey Graham, who recently announced his intention to explore the possibilities.

The South Carolina Republican, one of the leading hawks in the GOP, could end up as an unlikely ally to Obama, who won’t want his hands tied. Graham said he has no interest in a narrowly tailored AUMF for aerial missions and support functions.

“I will not be part of watering down the ability to defeat ISIL. I think we’re in an armed conflict with radical Islamists all over the world,” Graham told CQ Roll Call, using an acronym for the Islamic State group. “I will not be part of taking ground troops off the table, because I think eventually we’re going to need them.”

Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, another possible presidential contender, could also end up as an ally, as he’s advocated for a robust foreign policy and for empowering the president to effectively fight the Islamic State.

That contrasts with Rand Paul of Kentucky, also a possible 2016 candidate, who has been reluctant to commit the nation’s forces and treasure abroad.

Rubio and Paul, who both serve on the Foreign Relations Committee, have already clashed over the issue and are likely to continue to butt heads as the debate heats up.

Paul’s message, as he explained to CQ Roll Call in a recent interview, is for America to first “do no harm” on the world stage.

Their split was on display in December when Paul offered an amendment at a Foreign Relations Committee markup of an AUMF that would have limited the fight to Iraq and Syria, and would keep the effort from involving the nation in “a worldwide war.”

Rubio roundly criticized the amendment, which failed on a 13-5 vote. But Paul can also claim a victory for forcing the issue after he threatened to offer a Declaration of War against the Islamic State group to an unrelated water bill the committee was considering earlier in December.

Fellow potential presidential candidate Ted Cruz has been on board with rolling back the 2002 AUMF and for enacting a new AUMF against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS. But he doesn’t want anything contingent on other nations.

“Any action we take to stop ISIS should not be contingent on any consensus from the so-called international community,” the Texas Republican wrote in a CNN opinion piece last year.

As for the legislative mechanics, an aide to Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said that once the draft language arrives, the Tennessee Republican intends to hold “rigorous hearings in which the administration can provide greater clarity on the U.S. strategy regarding ISIS, particularly in Syria.”

Ranking member Robert Menendez is also working on the issue and has been in contact with the White House.

The New Jersey Democrat on Thursday underscored the need to strike a balance between limiting the White House, while at the same time providing flexibility. But the exact formulation that can win passage in the chamber remains elusive.

“While I have not seen the definitive language, the broad strokes that have been presented to me will have from one side of the equation say ‘well that’s a little too expansive for my taste’ and from the other side of the equation say ‘that’s not expansive enough,’ “ Menendez said. “So how a balance can be struck that would get the center of the Senate to be supportive remains to be seen.”

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Friday that consultations have been “robust” between administration officials and lawmakers on what the resolution should say.

Last year, Menendez, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, led an effort to get a three-year AUMF out of committee. But that AUMF advanced in December on a party line 10-8 vote.

Part of the reason Democrats supported the measure was because it included strict limitations on the use of ground forces. Without those strict limits, the AUMF will lose some Democratic support.

Other significant elements of the Menendez plan were requirements for a report on the comprehensive strategy for the campaign after 60 days and sunsetting the 2001 al-Qaida AUMF after another three years.

The White House will also be a deciding factor in the process. While they are currently making the rounds in the Capitol it remains to be seen how engaged the administration will be to get it through.

Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri underscored the difficulty in drafting an AUMF, but said that it has to get done.

“I am sure a lot of us will take shots at it and figure out if it’s the right way or the wrong way and ultimately, hopefully, we will all compromise and get it done,” said McCaskill, a member of Armed Services. “It’s unacceptable that because it’s hard to draft a new one we allow the other one to be open-ended forever.”

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A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq early in the morning of Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria on Islamic State targets.


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