Column: The GOP’s Iraq quandary
For most of the summer, Republicans had it easy when it came to the Islamic State. All they had to do was complain that President Obama wasn’t tough enough, accuse him of lacking strategic vision and demand that he do more.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), both perennial hawks, accused Obama of “dithering” and urged him to launch airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), not one to be outflanked on the right, said the United States should “bomb them back to the Stone Age.” Even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), known for his wariness of engagements abroad, called for “destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militarily” (in a column pointedly titled “I am not an Isolationist”).
And, until recently, Obama made himself an easy target. He talked mostly about what the United States wouldn’t do rather than what it would. He acknowledged that he didn’t have a strategy for confronting the Islamic State in Syria. He condemned the beheading of an American journalist — and then headed to the golf course.
But now that the president’s summer vacation is over, he’s unveiled a full-fledged strategy for pushing back against the militants, and it includes most of the elements his Republican critics have been asking for.
Want airstrikes? The United States has launched more than 150 of them against Islamic State fighters in northern and western Iraq, and the pace shows no sign of slacking.
Think we should expand the war into Syria? Administration officials say they’re actively considering airstrikes against Islamic State targets there. Meanwhile, they are increasing U.S. aid to moderate Syrian rebels so there will be a friendly force on the ground to work with if the U.S. Air Force attacks.
See a need for U.S. boots on the ground? Over the summer, the administration has quietly increased the number of military personnel in Iraq to more than 1,100, many of them coordinating U.S. air operations with local fighters.
Want to hear a clear goal? Obama is now calling for “destroying” the Islamic State even if it takes as long as three years. He hasn’t proposed bombing anyone back to the Stone Age, but, for Obama, he’s come pretty close, and Vice President Joe Biden has promised to pursue the militants “to the gates of hell.”
So are Republicans applauding? Not yet. Instead, most of them are ducking the issue — and waiting to pounce on anything in Obama’s speech Wednesday they find wanting.
For some on the right, such as Cruz, the idea of endorsing anything Obama does is both distasteful and politically risky. For others, there’s skepticism that Obama will actually deliver on his tough talk.
“I do think the president is prone to half measures,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me Tuesday. “We are always too little too late.”
And then there’s the fact that Obama apparently intends to pursue his strategy without asking for formal congressional authorization, a use of presidential power that causes many Republicans to bristle, and some Democrats too.
“It would be tremendously lacking in judgment and even preposterous if the president doesn’t ask for specific authorization from Congress,” Corker said.
Corker and others have called on Congress to debate and pass a new authorization of military force to cover the crisis in Iraq and Syria, and to replace the 13-year-old authorization for war against Al Qaeda, passed in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but now well out of date.
But the White House isn’t solely to blame for the absence of formal congressional authorization. Leaders in both parties have decided that a full-scale debate — and a vote that would force members to declare themselves clearly in favor or opposed — isn’t in their political interest right now.
As Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) told the New York Times in a moment of unusual candor: “A lot of people would like to stay on the sideline and say, ‘Just bomb the place and tell us about it later.’ It’s an election year…. We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long.”
But that’s no way to run a foreign policy. Those calling for a debate over this war are right, and if Obama doesn’t go to Congress to request authorization, the leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill should craft resolutions themselves. Next time you hear a member of Congress complain about the president’s overuse of executive power, ask why the legislators haven’t exercised their own rights when it comes to war and peace.
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