Why Progressives Are Abandoning Obama Over ISIS Resolution

President Barack Obama explains his war resolution. CREDIT: AP
President Barack Obama explains his war resolution. CREDIT: AP

The Obama administration asked Congress this week to approve a three-year war powers resolution in support of its ongoing campaign against the Islamic State. And while the authorization does not call for the deployment of U.S. ground troops — the administration has long argued that “local forces on the ground who know their countries best are best positioned to take the ground fight to ISIL” — some progressives in Congress raised questions on Wednesday about the resolution’s vague provisions. Below are some of their biggest concerns:

1. The resolution expands America’s military involvement in the Middle East.

Obama’s resolution “does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations,” avoiding the protracted ground wars of Iraq or Afghanistan. But the phrase “enduring offensive ground operations” could still allow the administration to launch rescue operations or deploy troops to assist with intelligence gathering, rescue a down pilot, and other on-the-ground missions. “[T]his resolution strikes the necessary balance by giving us the flexibility we need for unforeseen circumstances,” Obama said during a statement from the Roosevelt Room on Wednesday. “For example, if we had actionable intelligence about a gathering of ISIL leaders, and our partners didn’t have the capacity to get them, I would be prepared to order our Special Forces to take action, because I will not allow these terrorists to have a safe haven.”

In September, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the commander-in-chief could be convinced of increasing America’s military involvement on a case-by-case basis and stressed that while ground forces are not currently needed, “if I get to the point where I feel like for a particular mission they should accompany [Iraqi and Kurdish forces], I’ll make that recommendation.”

Progressives in Congress expressed worry about such mission creep. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is considering a 2016 presidential bid, argued that the phrase “enduring offensive” “opens a door wider than it should be.” “I think we’ve got to continue air strikes. I think we’ve got to use special operations forces when we can. But I do not want to see a never-ending quagmire in the Middle East where our troops die, come back with terrible illnesses and we end up spending trillions of dollars,” he said during an appearance on CNN.

2. The resolution does not repeal 2001’s broader use of force.

Though Obama had pledged to repeal the 2001 war on terror resolution and the 2002 resolution authorizing the Iraq War, the president’s request would maintain the former while eliminating the latter. Though White House officials told Democrats that they will try to repeal the 2001 resolution though a different legislative vehicle, the administration is still waging the current airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria based on an expansive reading of Congress’s 2001 authorization of war against Al Qaeda and argues that it has the legal authority to continue the campaign even if Congress fails to approve its request.

“Without one, any sunset of the new authorization will be ineffectual, since the next president can claim continued reliance on the old one,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said in a statement. The New York Times editorial page raised a similar concern, arguing that without sunsetting the 2001 authorization, “the next president can continue making war indefinitely.”

3. The resolution doesn’t limit the military campaign — and it could end up anywhere.

Obama’s resolution would allow the president to use armed forces as the executive “determines to be necessary and appropriate against ISIL or associated persons or forces” without geographical limitation. The language would allow this White House and future administrations to begin new military campaigns anywhere in the world so long as the battle is targeting “associations” of ISIL. “[T]he executive branch could interpret this language to authorize force against individuals far from any battlefield with only some remote connection to the group — potentially even in the United States itself,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) explained in a statement.