A model of ambiguity, the White House isn’t saying it favors a role for U.S. ground forces in combatting Islamic State terrorists. But it isn’t saying it opposes one, either.
Instead, the White House is floating legislation that pledges no “enduring offensive combat role” in authorizing the use of military force against extremists who have captured parts of Syria and Iraq, imposed stern Sharia law and summarily executed a string of hostages.
Applause was audible Tuesday from inside the room where White House officials presented the overall proposal to Democratic senators. But afterward, on the eve of the legislation’s formal launch, there were lingering questions.
“I don’t know what the word ‘enduring’ means. I am very apprehensive about a vague, foggy word,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
Other concerns came from Republicans who had been briefed earlier.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said administration officials had told him their proposal would not provide for the protection of U.S.-trained Syrian rebel troops on the ground in the event of an air attack by Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
“It’s an unsound military strategy. I think it’s immoral if the authorization doesn’t allow for us to counter Assad’s air power,” Graham said.
The White House’s efforts to forge a compromise were shadowed during the day by confirmation of the death of a 26-year-old American aid worker from Prescott, Arizona, who had been held hostage by the Islamic group. Obama vowed justice for her killers, and Republican Sen. John McCain, who represents the state where she was from, seemed to grow emotional as he eulogized her on the Senate floor.
The White House and lawmakers in both parties said they hoped Congress would act quickly on the president’s request, and its fate seemed likely to turn on the search for a compromise that could satisfy Democrats who oppose the use of American ground forces in the fight against IS, and Republicans who favor at least leaving the possibility open.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., discussing the White House’s opaque formulation, predicted, “That’s where the rub will be.” He also said it was not yet clear if the proposal would cancel an authorization for the use of force that Congress approved shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Several other lawmakers who were briefed in earlier meetings said the legislation would be targeted exclusively against the fighters seeking establishment of an Islamic state, wherever they are and whatever name they use.
It also is intended to cancel a 2002 law that authorized the use of force against Iraq.
There is little evident dispute in Congress that a new authorization is needed, both to replace outdated laws and to underscore a bipartisan desire to defeat the terrorists seeking an Islamic state.
Obama so far has relied on congressional authorizations that President George W. Bush used to justify military action after 9/11. He said last year he had the legal authority necessary to deploy more than 2,700 U.S. troops to train and assist Iraqi security forces and conduct ongoing airstrikes against targets in Iraq and Syria.
Looking ahead to Obama’s expected request, some Democrats expressed concern about a three-year timeline, noting that would leave the next president free to carry out ground operations that Obama refused to approve.
On the other side of the political aisle, some of Obama’s die-hard foes seemed unlikely to vote for anything that involved placing their trust in the current occupant of the White House.
Other Republicans have urged the president to request legislation now emerging, and they praised his willingness to do so, up to a point.
“This president, you know, is prone to unilateral action. But when it comes to national security matters, and particularly now fighting this barbaric threat — not only the region but to our own security — I think it’s important to come to Congress and get bipartisan support,” said John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican leader.
Cornyn and other Republicans have said it’s important to have a military strategy robust enough to enable victory, and accused Obama of failing to do so.
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