Does Congress Support How Obama Wants to Fight ISIL?

An American flag waves outside the United States Capitol building as Congress remains gridlocked over legislation to continue funding the federal government September 29, 2013 in Washington, DC. The House of Representatives passed a continuing resolution with language to defund U.S. President Barack Obama's national health care plan yesterday, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated the U.S. Senate will not consider the legislation as passed by the House. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Late March saw top officials from the Obama administration approach Congress to discuss resource demands in the effort against the Islamic State (ISIL). The discussion was begun from perhaps one of the most adventitious positions possible, politically speaking. The situation with Iran’s nuclear program has ironically placed the Obama administration in fairly good footing for talking with the GOP about how to handle operations in Iraq and coming out of Syria.

The administration has had less than cordial relations with members of the Republican Congress after 47 senators sent a damaging letter to Iran’s leadership just as nuclear negotiations commenced. Iran responded in kind, the vice president was highly critical, and generally the United States is very likely to have taken a bad hit to its international reputation as a result of political disunity and infighting within the American government.

True, many of the legislators stand behind their decision to go around formal negotiations with the separate unapproved correspondence, but the media response has been critical — nor did Iran’s answering letter look good for the U.S., as it highlighted the split in political power. So when it comes to a request for approval on additional resources to combat ISIL, the Obama administration has a few things going for it. First, it can play off the need to look like a strong and united front against terrorism. Secondly, Republicans tend to be known for placing national security and military support first and foremost among the countries priorities, and allowing Democrats to label them as weak on terrorism or national defense would be a major vulnerability.

Vice President Joe Biden’s reference to ISIL in his letter to Republican Congress members set this request up particularly well. “Without diplomacy or increased pressure, the need to resort to military force becomes more likely,” he wrote, “at a time when our forces are already engaged in the fight against ISIL.” Secretary of State John Kerry spoke before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appealing to those present to make certain that Obama has “the flexibility” he needs in order to “direct a successful military campaign,” within limits, of course. Those limits would include “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”

This rhetoric was likely included in order to keep the administration from appearing to eager to dive back into an expensive — monetarily and in terms of human lives — war. And, indeed, the effectiveness of efforts only from the air is debatable — as UC Berkeley lecturer Bruce Newsome argues. “Western intervention of the scale and scope required to defeat ISIS will not happen, given popular aversion to further ground commitments of the type that failed to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq already,” he writes. “Air strikes alone are indecisive without a ground campaign to flush the terrorists/insurgents out of their hiding places and to contain them for separation from ordinary civilians.”

Other concerns related to America’s response to ISIL were made heard from an audience member during the hearing. However, the fact of the matter is that even if an effective strategy for “defeating” ISIL would be difficult to form without additional forces or moral quandaries, Congress is badly positioned to oppose the financial support Obama needs.

“Your unity would also send an unmistakeable message to the leaders,” said Kerry during the Wednesday hearing. “They have to understand they can’t divide us … and they have no hope of defeating us.” This was not his only discussion of unity and America’s reputation — the point was really driven home, as was the president’s power to act internationally without permission from Congress.

“The president already has statutory authority to act against ISIL, but a clear and formal expression of this Congress’s backing at this moment in time would dispel doubt that might exist anywhere that Americans are united in this effort,” said Kerry, adding that it would help to encourage and motivate allies in the Middle East and elsewhere. He also made mention of the need to support members of the armed forces, a topic that usually goes over well with the GOP, which is known for its public focus on supporting and respecting members of the military. “It would constitute a richly deserved vote of confidence in the men and women of our armed forces,” said Kerry.

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