Shadow Government

Why Obama Should Get Congress to Back the Fight Against the Islamic State

The growing threat from the Islamic State and the Obama administration 's accelerating campaign of airstrikes against it serve reminder of history's continual capacity to surprise. If even one year ago someone had predicted that Iraq would mark the next site of a major American military intervention, such a forecast would have been dismissed as hopelessly far-fetched, even delusional. Yet with the Obama administration now giving persistent indications that this will be a sustained and multi-pronged campaign in Iraq and potentially Syria, the White House needs to take the next step of going to Capitol Hill and requesting Congressional support for this newest phase of the war against militant jihadism.

The IS resurgence has already forced the administration to confront some uncomfortable truths about its past mistakes, including dismissing IS as the "jayvee" team, assuming that disengagement from Iraq and passivity on Syria would carry little cost, failing to develop a robust counter-radicalization strategy, and declaring "mission accomplished" against the terrorist threat. To their credit, the administration is now beginning to approach the IS threat with the gravity it deserves. Doing so will mean marshalling domestic and international support for the sustained campaign that will be needed to defeat IS, and requesting that Congress grant a new authorization to use military force is the most important first step in this direction.

I am not a legal scholar, and am sure that skilled lawyers could make good arguments on either side for the legality of the Obama administration 's current use of force against IS without Congressional authorization. Yet even though I take a fairly expansive view of a president's Article II authority as commander-in-chief, a combination of prudence, politics, and policy all point towards the merit of seeking Congressional support.

Even before the Islamic State's resurgence, some national security legal scholars were arguing that the Obama administration 's campaign against al Qaeda and its proliferating franchises was skating on increasingly thin legal ice. For our academically-inclined readers, my Strauss Center and University of Texas faculty colleague Bobby Chesney last year published a compelling argument in the Michigan Law Review on the growing obsolescence of the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) and the need for a new AUMF. In light of ongoing U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, Chesney and his colleagues at the indispensable Lawfare blog are making similar arguments this week on the need for Congressional authorization for our current operations.

Substantively, a new AUMF, especially focused on IS and its affiliates, could take into account the evolution and adaptation of militant jihadist groups in the 13 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as the shifts and drawdowns of American ground force deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Islamic State's nihilistic wickedness may be generating the headlines now, but over time even more danger may be posed by its magnetism towards other al Qaeda franchises and its potential leadership of militant jihadist groups spanning the broader Middle East and points beyond in Africa and South Asia.

No president enjoys showing any deference to Congress, of course, and this president in particular suffers from an especially dysfunctional distance from Capitol Hill. A recent New York Times article described Obama's relationship with Congress with words like "disengaged," "indifference," "distant," "frustrating" -- and that is just with Members of his own Democratic Party. To rally bipartisan support from both Democrats and Republicans for his counterterrorism policy, President Obama will need to travel quite far down Pennsylvania Avenue, both literally and metaphorically. Yet for a matter as grave as the IS threat, I hope that Congress will be willing to set aside its frustrations and take some steps to meet this president halfway.

As a matter of politics and operational policy, securing Congressional support would bring significant benefits, including:

  • providing firm political and legal support for the use of lethal force against IS elements in any region that pose a threat to the United States;
  • mobilizing domestic support from a skeptical American public;
  • strengthening our diplomatic leverage with the new Iraqi Government under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi;
  • reassuring other skittish American allies and partners that the United States is committed to this fight (such a message would especially resonate in the United Kingdom, where national security officials are still bruised over last year's embarrassing Syria vote while also grappling with the appalling number of British citizens in IS);
  • offering a more sustainable basis for detention and interrogation policies of captured IS-affiliated fighters;
  • helping repair some of the political damage the White House inflicted on itself with its refusal to seek Congressional support for the Libya War and its vacillation on the Syria resolution.

Finally, as Jack Goldsmith notes, it would compel Congress to take some ownership over American national security policy. Securing Congressional support now for the campaign against IS could also help lay the groundwork for marshalling Congressional support to repeal the reckless defense cuts in the 2011 Budget Control Act, as both the Obama administration  and Congress will realize that such a conflict cannot be sustained or won on the cheap. My Shadow Government colleagues Dov Zakheim and Tom Mahnken both supported the work of the National Defense Panel and its emphatic bipartisan recommendation to restore the defense budget soon.

As someone who has worked as a staff member in both the Executive branch and Congress, I am all too familiar with the mutual disdain felt by both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue towards each other. Congress generates enough ill-conceived and ill-informed ideas on foreign and defense policy that it can be easy for the Executive Branch to dismiss Capitol Hill as nothing but institutionalized ignorance. But such an attitude disregards the fact that some Members bring considerable expertise and insight on national security policy.

For example, in April the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft (where I serve as executive director) hosted Senator Marco Rubio for a lecture on American national security policy here at the University of Texas-Austin. In his remarks, Senator Rubio warned that the territory in Syria and Iraq controlled by IS has "increasingly has become the premiere operational space on the planet for radical jihadists to train and operate. I will make a prediction to you tonight that if things continue the way they are, soon we will see attacks staged against our interests and, God forbid, perhaps even our homeland from those ungoverned spaces in Syria." Along with a few other Congressional voices, Rubio has been consistently warning that American negligence could, as he put it in the Wall Street Journal over two years ago, "allow Syria to hurtle toward becoming a radicalized, failed state whose violence will spill over and threaten its neighbors."

Rubio's April speech in Texas generated some anxious headlines. With each passing day of IS territorial advances and threats against the United States, and with the horrific beheading of James Foley, it appears more and more prescient. We are entering an ominous and uncertain new phase in the Long War; waging it requires the White House and Congress to come together and prepare the nation.

This post has been updated.


Shadow Government

Three Ways the Islamic State Is Turning Things Upside Down

Reading the voluminous news and commentary on the Islamic State (IS), I was struck by how the rapidly unfolding events seem to be disrupting many familiar patterns.

Let me note just three.

First, usually administrations figure out what they intend to do about a threat and then calibrate their messaging and description of that threat accordingly. Yes, they first do an even more preliminary step in private: assess the threat to decide what they should do. But once they have decided what to do, the public messaging usually is proportional to the action undertaken. If they are determined to confront the threat with all means necessary, they might call it a "grave threat to peace." If they are not going to take military action against it, they might dismiss the threat as the "jayvee" team. In the latter case, critics of the administration might challenge that assessment and describe the threat in more alarming terms, with the administration pushing back to defend a rhetorical line closer to the actions the administration is willing to undertake. What is more rare is what we are witnessing right now: The most alarming rhetoric about the threat posed by IS is from senior members of the administration itself, beginning with President Obama, yet this is a president (and therefore an administration) that has also repeatedly set very sharp limits about what action it will take. The gap between the administration's description of the threat and its response to the threat was already wide, but seems to be growing by the day.

The gap problem is compounded by a lack of clarity over objectives. Is the goal to "halt" and "contain" IS's advances in Iraq? Is it to "degrade" IS's strength? Is it to "defeat" IS? Or is it to "destroy" it? The administration has referenced all of those goals at one point or other and they mean very different things to the military. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear that the more demanding task of "defeat" would require attacking IS's Syria sanctuaries. That objective would certainly be proportional to the threat the administration says IS poses, but that is a far more demanding military task than Obama has been willing to embrace until now and so far there is little indication the president himself is willing right now to commit the country to that task. But if President Obama is indeed committed to more modest steps, why does the administration keep describing the threat in apocalyptic terms, and why does it keep describing more ambitious objectives?

Second, it is striking that both one of President Obama's most consistent supporters and one of his most consistent critics are praising President Obama's tactical moves in confronting IS. Within inches of each other in today's newspaper, two of the highest-quality columnists in the business, yet with very different track records of support/critique of the president, David Ignatius and Charles Krauthammer, praised President Obama for withholding military action against IS until now-former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stepped down. That was certainly President Obama's intention, and he stuck with it for months -- much longer than I thought wise. But as I read the chronology, the president did not stick to that conditionality until the Iraqis met the terms. Instead, Obama acted before Maliki stepped down. Yes, he acted even more forcefully afterwards, but the initial airstrikes came before it was clear Maliki would step down. This is not a trivial quibble since it goes to the heart of what catalyzed what: Did American action catalyze Iraqi action or vice versa? How is it that two of my favorite columnists -- two of the very best -- could miss this?

Third, the mainstream press is now starting to make a bigger deal about the White House's awkward management of choreography and optics, this time the juxtaposition of his emotional remarks about the gruesome beheading and yet another round of golf. When even the New York Times is writing about it, perhaps it is time for the White House staff to rejigger the schedule so there is more distance in the president's schedule between the national security events and the social events.

Of course, IS's disruptions on the geopolitical stage are far more important, but the topsy-turvy in Washington is worth noting, too.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images