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Little Progress in US Authorization for Fight Against Islamic State

  • Michael Bowman

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says Congress should give President Barack Obama flexibility in combating Islamic State fighters, if and when lawmakers approve a military authorization. Months into a U.S.-led air campaign against Sunni extremists, Congress appears no closer to passing an authorization, and the administration is not spelling out a proposal of its own.

As airstrikes continue over Iraq and Syria, an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) remains elusive. Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the desire for an AUMF is genuine.

“I am here to work with you on behalf of the administration to get this done. And the president has said all along that he wants an AUMF,” he said.

That prompted a curt response from committee Chairman Robert Menendez.

“There is a famous movie that says, ‘Show me the money.’ I would say, ‘Show me the [administration’s AUMF] language,’” he said.

Menendez has proposed an authorization lasting three years that rules out U.S. ground troops in combat operations.

“Americans will not be supportive of an authorization of an endless war," he said. "They do not want us to occupy Iraq for decades. In my view, deployment of ground troops at this time would be 'Groundhog Day' in Iraq all over again.”

Kerry praised the Menendez draft, but urged greater flexibility for the president.

He noted the Obama has ruled out U.S. ground combat operations, but also cited the importance of flexibility.

“It does not mean that we should preemptively bind the hands of the commander-in-chief or our commanders in the field in responding to scenarios and contingencies that are impossible to foresee,” Kerry said.

The Senate panel could vote on an AUMF as early as Thursday. But with Congress expected to adjourn in the coming days, full congressional passage is all but impossible for now, a fact noted by the committee’s top Republican, Senator Bob Corker.

“I know we are not going to get to a place where the House and Senate pass an authorization," he said. "And I just want to say that we weaken our nation when we begin a process like that and we do not actually enact it in law.”

Despite strong bipartisan support for the fight against Islamic State, neither the administration nor a politically divided Congress is eager to wrestle with an authorization for the use of military force, according to political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

"I think this is a classic example of a hot potato no one wants to address. It is a complicated issue, nobody has a good strategy and therefore politicians are trying to finesse it," he said.

The current air campaign is being waged under authorizations passed by Congress after the 2001 terrorist attacks to combat al-Qaida and its affiliates.

Kerry says Islamic State is an off-shoot of al-Qaida, so the existing AUMF is sufficient, but that an updated authorization would be beneficial. That task will be left to the next Congress, which will convene in January.