President Obama asked Congress on Wednesday for new war powers to go after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the brutal terror group that has beheaded American journalists and aid workers and has menaced the Middle East. The president’s request would replace the 2002 legislation that authorized the Iraq War but leaves in place a very broadly worded resolution passed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“This is a difficult mission, and it will remain difficult for some time,” Obama said at the White House, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry. But “ISIL is on the defensive, and ISIL is going to lose,” Obama added, using an alternative acronym for the terror group.
Earlier Wednesday, Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize early in his presidency, submitted a draft resolution seeking from Congress a three-year Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS. The resolution notably restricts the use of American ground troops and seeks to avoid a prolonged conflict in the fight against ISIS, which has taken control of large swathes of Syria and northern Iraq in its quest to establish a religious state in the Middle East.
Obama won the presidency in 2008 in part as a staunch opponent of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003; under his leadership, American troops were withdrawn from that country in 2011. But the recent rise of ISIS – which began as an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and has thrived in the vacuum created by the relentless and deadly civil war in Syria – forced his administration to take military action. Still, the president went to great lengths to differentiate his strategy in the region from the actions of his predecessor.
“I’m convinced the U.S. should not get dragged back into another ground war in the Middle East. That’s not in our national security interest, and it’s not necessary for us to defeat ISIL,” Obama said, adding he would only send American troops into harm’s way when “absolutely necessary.”
The Senate is set to vote Thursday on the confirmation of Ashton Carter, Obama’s pick to succeed Hagel as U.S. defense secretary. Carter was not at the White House event Wednesday, but he would be the top Pentagon official to see the military offensive through.
Congress overwhelmingly approved an AUMF proposed by President George W. Bush days after the al Qaeda terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that killed nearly 3,000 Americans. Critics later complained the authorization was too broad and formed the underpinning for questionable tactics to fight the war on terror, including indefinite detention and targeted killings.
“My Administration’s draft AUMF would not authorize long‑term, large-scale ground combat operations like those our Nation conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Obama wrote in a letter to Congress. “Local forces, rather than U.S. military forces, should be deployed to conduct such operations. The authorization I propose would provide the flexibility to conduct ground combat operations in other, more limited circumstances, such as rescue operations involving U.S. or coalition personnel or the use of special operations forces to take military action against ISIL leadership. It would also authorize the use of U.S. forces in situations where ground combat operations are not expected or intended, such as intelligence collection and sharing, missions to enable kinetic strikes, or the provision of operational planning and other forms of advice and assistance to partner forces.”
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The vague language in the draft resolution has raised fears among some Democrats that it opens the door to future ground troops across the Middle East. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee as wells as the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, told msnbc’s Alex Wagner that Obama’s resolution needs more restrictions against the use of ground troops.
“I am insistent that it needs to be narrowed or clarified or specified so that we are not in effect authorizing open ended operations,” Blumenthal said. He added that the president’s request provided a “starting point” for Congress.
Win Without War, an umbrella group that includes organizations such as Greenpeace and MoveOn.org, swiftly denounced Obama’s resolution.
“We strongly urge Congress to reject the pursuit of a military solution to a conflict that does not have one,” the group said in a statement. “American bombs have been falling on the Middle East for decades and they have only served to destabilize the region and prolong conflicts. We must recognize that no Congressional action will suddenly end the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Instead we should redouble our efforts to find a truly comprehensive solution to these challenges that has a chance of finally bring peace – not more war – to the long-suffering people of this region.”
Former Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, who is eyeing a White House bid in 2016, criticized Obama’s resolution as too limited.
“All options need to be on the table in combating this Radical Islamic threat,” Santorum said in a statement distributed by his Patriot Voices PAC. “We need to take the fight to our enemy without the constraints this Administration is proactively placing upon itself and this President’s successor. The next President needs to be able to have all the tools at their disposal to not just conduct military operations, but win this war.”
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who is also considering a White House bid, said Obama’s war proposal need only be one sentence. “I would say there is a pretty simple authorization he could ask for, and it would read one sentence. And that is: ‘We authorize the President to defeat and destroy ISIL, period.’ And that’s, I think, what we need to do,” Rubio said Wednesday in a speech on the Senate floor.
The House of Representatives held a moment of silence Wednesday to honor Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker who died while being held hostage by ISIS. Lawmakers from Arizona – Mueller’s home state – led the moment of silence, saying she “stood as a beacon of light and hope.” Mueller’s family confirmed her death Tuesday. ISIS claimed last week that Mueller had died in an airstrike that targeted the terror group.
Obama announced his plan to launch airstrikes against ISIS back in September, and the White House’s AUMF resolution seeks to formalize the U.S. military campaign to “degrade and defeat” ISIS.