A notable protest, because Tim Kaine is not just any Senator. He’s also a Democrat — and, in fact, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee — and has been around for a couple of previous attempts at intervention by Barack Obama. In today’s Washington Post, Kaine warns the White House that neither the 2001 AUMF on al-Qaeda nor the 2002 AUMF on Iraq covers the current situation against ISIS:
Last week, both the Obama administration and certain members of Congress said that no congressional authorization is needed for U.S. military action in Iraq. I deeply disagree. …
In the current Iraq crisis, neither authorization applies. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is not an al-Qaeda affiliate — in fact, it is openly battling with al-Qaeda in Syria — and administration officials have said that the 2002 AUMF is obsolete and should be repealed.
No one can deny that threats from ISIS, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups across the region are metastasizing. An Iraq that becomes a haven for jihadists poses a threat to the United States. I’m open to hearing the case for military action in Iraq, but first we need a new playbook.
The “ISIS is not AQ” argument has to be heavily, heavily qualified. The two are not at open war with each other, as Kaine suggests, although units in their respective networks may have clashed in Syria occasionally. ISIS declares its loyalty to Osama bin Laden’s vision, and was an early offshoot of the main AQ network run by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as “al-Qaeda in Iraq.” AQ designated Zarqawi as the network’s “emir” during the insurgency. We certainly considered AQI as a legitimate target under one or both AUMFs during that period, and it’s not clear why a name change would make a difference now.
It’s also not clear when Kaine changed his mind to be a stickler on interventions. In last year’s abortive attempt by the Obama administration to intervene in Syria, Kaine did insist on a Congressional authorization before any action took place. In 2011, though, Kaine gave Obama the latitude to continue the war with Moammar Qaddafi that Obama started without consulting Capitol Hill, although suggesting that it might be better politically for Obama to work with Congress:
“I do think in things like this, err on the side of caution and go to Congress,” Kaine said in an interview after a campaign stop in Charlottesville.
When asked whether the War Powers Act legally requires the White House to get congressional approval for Libya, Kaine was noncommittal.
“I’m not the lawyer on that,” Kaine said, adding that the president had a “good rationale” for going in, given that sanctions had failed and the United Nations and the Arab League signed off on intervention.
Perhaps Kaine learned a lesson from the disastrous Libyan intervention. The Obama White House didn’t.
This question is probably academic, as Obama’s demands for political reform before engaging militarily are probably going to go unanswered. Nouri al-Maliki rejected the demand of a national unity government in the face of the threat to the capital:
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Wednesday ruled out forming a national emergency government to confront a Sunni militant offensive that has overrun large parts of the country.
“The call to form a national emergency government is a coup against the constitution and the political process,” Maliki said in a televised address.
“The dangerous goals of forming a national emergency government are not hidden.
“It is an attempt by those who are against the constitution to eliminate the young democratic process and steal the votes of the voters,” said the Iraqi leader.
Translation: We’re going to keep the spoils to ourselves … until ISIS shows up and takes them away from us. That will put a big dent in US plans to get Sunnis re-engaged against ISIS, which involve an attempt to produce another Anbar Awakening, only this time without American protection:
They were known as the Sahwa, or the Awakening Councils — Sunni militiamen who took extraordinary risks to side with U.S. troops in the fight against al-Qaida during the Iraq War. Once heralded as a pivotal step in the defeat of the bloody insurgency, the Sahwa later were pushed aside by Iraq’s Shiite-led government, starved of political support and money needed to remain a viable security force.
Now, the Obama administration is looking at the Sahwa, which still exist in smaller form, as a model for how to unite Sunni fighters against the rampant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that has swept across most of the nation’s north. Also known as the Sons of Iraq — “sahwa” is Arabic for “awakening” — U.S. officials say they hope Sunnis will be similarly stirred to fight back against the new insurgency.
As many as 3,000 core ISIL fighters, many of them foreign, are believed to be in Iraq. But U.S. intelligence officials fear twice that many Iraqi Sunnis are vulnerable to being lured into the violence — pushing the country into an outright civil war. That has prompted the White House, State Department and CIA to look for incentives to keep as many disgruntled Sunnis as possible from joining the fight.
The success of the original Anbar Awakening came from convincing the local Sunni tribal leaders that Zarqawi’s terrorists were simply intolerable even for fellow Sunnis, giving them boatloads of cash, and promising that the Americans would guarantee their access to political power in the new Iraqi republic with our outsized influence due to our security efforts. Pulling out of Iraq has entirely negated our ability to deliver on the final point, which makes this sales job impossible.
What are we offering in its place? Nothing. Literally:
The Obama administration has no immediate plans to arm or fund the Sunni security militias, and there are too few American personnel in Iraq now to try to duplicate the original joint force.
It’s thought likely that Iraq’s Sunni neighbors — notably Jordan and Saudi Arabia — will use their cross-border tribal networks to bolster the security militias with financing or weapons, but it’s not clear whether Washington would even support that privately. The U.S. probably would want to vet the tribes before they received any money or arms, even from other nations, to ensure that the aid does not get passed along to ISIL or other extremist groups.
Good luck with that. The Sunnis trusted us once, and we left them in the lurch in regard to both Maliki and ISIS. If we’re not willing to get back on the ground with them — even for all of the legitimate and persuasive reasons why we shouldn’t — why would these Sunni tribal leaders switch sides now?
Update: Good luck convincing these Sunni tribal leaders once ISIS acquires an air force:
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham is threatening to take control of Balad Airbase, Iraq’s largest airfield and one of America’s most important military outposts during its occupation of the country.
Today, Balad still has plenty of vehicles and aircraft on the base that any terrorist group would covet, including Russian-made transport helicopters, surveillance planes, and a fleet of pickup trucks fitted with heavy machine guns.
Now, that airbase is coming under fire—and is in danger of falling into the hands of ISIS, according to U.S. intelligence officers, internal reports from Balad, and outside analysts. Reuters reported Wednesday that the base was now surrounded on three sides by insurgents and taking heavy mortar fire. …
Of course, even if ISIS were to gain control of Balad, there is no guarantee its fighters would know how to operate or maintain the aircraft that are stored there. But an ISIS takeover of Balad would be significant nonetheless. As NBC News reported Tuesday, Iraqi officers say without air support they are on an equal footing with ISIS fighters.
Jessica Lewis—the research director for the Institute for the Study of War and a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq—told The Daily Beast, “It would mean that ISIS can beat the best that the Iraqi Army can muster, not just the northern units that have been ignored. It would mean strategic defeat for the Iraqi Army.”