Op-Ed: A misguided effort against Islamic State

Qamishli, Syria
People’s Protection Units fighters celebrate in Syria’s northeastern city of Qamishli after they seized the eastern and southern outskirts of a key Islamic State group stronghold.
(Delil Souleiman / AFP/Getty Images)

Since President Obama asked Congress in February for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force against Islamic State, the proposal has been under attack by hawkish members of Congress. “My goal is to do no harm to the war effort,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said recently. “The harm is to embrace a strategy with no chance of success.”

He’s right — and that’s precisely why the use-of-force prescriptions Graham and others are advocating are so misguided.

Congressional hawks are pushing for expansive executive war powers. Though they have not offered their own comprehensive strategy, interventionists such as Graham and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) are calling for Obama — and his successor — to be able to wage another American war of choice in the Middle East.

Right now, the war in question is in Syria. McCain has made clear for months that his preferred course of action would commit the U.S. to backing Syria’s ineffective moderate rebels in that complicated, multi-front conflict. In effect, congressional hawks propose that the United States should adopt the Syrian civil war as its own cause.


But how would that strategy serve U.S. interests? The United States has one vital interest in Syria: preventing a transnational terrorist attack by Islamic State, one of the splintered militias active in that conflict and throughout the Middle East. But most plans for intervening in the war against Syrian President Bashar Assad would distract from countering Islamic State, not promote it.

The U.S. would have to train and arm a Syrian rebel force much larger than the 5,000 troops that have been discussed. These rebels would not share America’s counter-terrorism priority, but would be instead focused on fighting Assad. Washington would have to support them through a long and difficult war, and only when Assad had been defeated would they turn to fighting Islamic State.

Syria’s civil war is a monumental tragedy, but adding even thousands more trained Free Syrian Army fighters would accelerate the bloodshed there, not end it. Even the rebels’ most steadfast advocates are questioning their ability to defeat Assad. Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria who has supported intervention for years, has backed away from arming the rebels, who he no longer believes could be made capable to take on the regime. Instead, he told McClatchy’s Hannah Allam, “The time had come for U.S. officials and their allies to have a serious talk about ‘boots on the ground.’”

The consequences of U.S. and allied escalation in Syria would be severe. Russia and Iran are already invested in Syria on Assad’s side. Escalation would undermine the administration’s policy of “uncoordinated deconfliction,” by which the United States doesn’t cooperate with Iran but works in parallel with it in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq. Changing the balance in Syria could lead to a U.S. proxy war with Iran in Syria, Iraq and possibly elsewhere, which among other problems could collapse the nuclear deal under negotiation with Tehran.


Instead of expanding the power of the commander in chief, the new Authorization for Use of Military Force should be a safeguard to prevent the war against Islamic State from metastasizing in unforeseen ways, as has the war against Al Qaeda. It is a chance for the U.S., through Congress, to define the war it wants to fight.

And yet much of Congress is reluctant to debate military authorization at all. In September, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) told the New York Times: “A lot of people [in Washington] would like to stay on the sideline and say, ‘Just bomb the place and tell us about it later.’ … We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well.” Now, even congressional hawks are eager to cede what war powers they have to the executive branch, although they have an obligation to authorize and help guide this next war the United States will fight.

As it is now written, the draft authorization does not constrain strikes on Syria or Iraq or anywhere Islamic State operates. Its mild limit on military strategy — a prohibition against “enduring offensive ground combat operations” — has, as National Security Network senior advisor and retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton noted last month, “no significant doctrinal or operational meaning.”

Is Congress — or the American public — ready for the level of war that even the draft authorization allows? If not, it should include geographic and operational limits, as most American war authorizations have. And congressional hawks shouldn’t be allowed to write this or any president a blank check.

Lindsey Graham’s concern about embracing a strategy with no chance of success is valid. In fact, it is why congressional hawks’ insistence on an unbounded military force authorization is so troubling. It would not only encourage a strategy for failure, it would also codify the authority for it.
J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network and coauthor of the report “Confronting the Islamic State: An Assessment of U.S. Strategic Options.”

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