For an administration that opened the year dismissing ISIS as “jayvees” that required no particular American response, the White House is closing 2014 with a whiplash-inducing reversal. Most of the attention on Capitol Hill yesterday focused on Jonathan Gruber and his attempt to deflect criticism away from ObamaCare in testimony to the House, but a more significant hearing took place in the upper chamber. John Kerry went to the Foreign Relations Committee to ask for a blank check to fight ISIS — including the flexibility to deploy American troops for combat in Iraq, Syria, and pretty much anywhere else:
Secretary of State John Kerry testified before the Senate panel he once led—the Foreign Relations Committee—to urge lawmakers not to constrain the president as he wages war against ISIS terrorists in Iraq, Syria, and wherever he needs to follow them. Though Obama has stressed repeatedly that the new conflict will be limited, and the U.S. would not be “dragged back” into another quagmire in the Middle East, the authorization his administration is seeking could allow for a much broader war.
Specifically, Kerry asked his former colleagues not to limit the use of military force to those two countries where Obama already has launched airstrikes, nor to bar the president from deploying combat troops on the ground, despite his repeated assurances that he will not do so. “In our view, it would be a mistake to advertise to ISIL that there are safe havens for them outside of Iraq and Syria,” Kerry said. On the use of ground troops, the secretary reiterated Obama’s policy that “U.S. military forces will not be deployed to conduct ground combat operations against ISIL.” But he doesn’t want Congress to put that in writing. “That does not mean,” Kerry said, “we should pre-emptively 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.” As examples, he said the administration needed flexibility to execute hostage rescues or respond if ISIS acquired chemical weapons outside the region.
That did not sit well with Kerry’s successor on the panel, Robert Menendez, who accused Kerry of obfuscating a demand for a blank check:
Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, has written a draft AUMFthat would authorize the use of force against ISIS and associated forces for three years. His version of the AUMF would only permit ground forces for certain scenarios, such as protecting U.S. citizens from “imminent danger” or for “limited operations against high value targets.” …
“It seems to me you’re making the case for a rather open-ended authorization,” Menendez said. “If that’s the case, you should just say it.”
The entire Senate panel had the same reaction to Kerry’s insistence that they rewrite the AUMF. Kerry called Menendez’ draft a “good starting point,” and then proceeded to dodge questions that tried to establish a firm Obama administration request for the scope. At one point, John McCain demanded that Barack Obama try leading for a change:
“Had the administration sent us an AUMF, maybe we would have been better versed as to what the administration seeks or does not seek,” Menendez responded.
Kerry and Sen. John McCain got into a tiff over historical precedent, with McCain arguing that previous AUMFs have always moved with the impetus of the executive branch, and his longtime Senate colleague disputing that characterization. “It’s got to be led by the commander in chief,” McCain said. “That’s how the system works.” Kerry said some previous such actions have in fact originated in Congress.
McCain’s concerns were shared on both sides of the aisle. “I am sad that we haven’t been able to work with you to craft something together,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer. “I don’t think we should put this off. I’ve gotta go on record.”
Others were more forceful. After hearing Kerry’s testimony on which congressional proposals the White House would support, Sen. Marco Rubio lamented that it had taken a hearing to garner that information. “You don’t have anyone over there who could type that up real quick?” he asked.
Of course they do, but they won’t. Obama got elected by promising to end the war in Iraq, and then got re-elected by bragging that he’d done so by pulling out. All he did was set the stage for the war to expand exponentially, and with it the threat to the region and the West. Now Obama wants to avoid the political consequences of the failure of his policy by trying to get Congress to step in front of him while Obama prepares to re-enter the war he left behind. Republicans aren’t going to take the bait no matter how much they see the need for a forward strategy against ISIS, and neither are Obama’s Democratic allies.
The defining characteristic of this administration’s foreign policy has always been a failure to lead. It’s just becoming a lot more obvious these days.