In the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group, members of the US Congress talk tough against extremism, but many want to run for cover when it comes to voting on new war powers to fight the militants, preferring to let US President Barack Obama own the battle.
They might not be able to avoid a vote for long.
The US military intervention in Iraq and Syria is creeping forward, putting more pressure on Congress to vote on a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). It would be the first war vote in Congress in 13 years.
Democratic Senator Tim Kaine — a leading force in the Senate for a new authorization measure — said the reluctance to vote runs deep and that many in Congress prefer to criticize Obama’s policy in Iraq and Syria without either authorizing or stopping the fight.
“There is sort of this belief that if we do not vote, we cannot be held politically accountable. We can just blame the president,” Kaine said.
“We are forcing people to be deployed far from home in a theater of war, and risking their lives and losing their lives and members of Congress are like ‘I’m afraid of this vote because somebody might try to hold me accountable for it.’”
The vote in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq was politically perilous for many lawmakers — and is shadowing next year’s presidential candidates today.
“I know lawmakers who still go over to Arlington Cemetery — to the gravesites of folks killed in the Iraq War and wonder ‘Why did I vote for this?’”Kaine said.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy agreed, saying crafting a plan to fight the IS group is not easy.
“It’s very convenient for Congress just to force the president to do it and blame him if it fails,” Murphy said. “If we pass an AUMF, then we own the strategy.”
To fight the IS group, Obama has relied on congressional authorizations given to former US president George W. Bush for the war on al-Qaeda and the invasion of Iraq. Critics said the White House’s use of post-Sept. 11 congressional authorizations is a legal stretch at best. They also said that the battle has grown exponentially.
Since August last year, the US-led coalition has conducted nearly 8,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. There are 3,400 US military personnel currently deployed in Iraq. More than US$4.7 billion has been spent so far on the fight against the IS group. The exodus of refugees from Syria has intensified and Russia has entered the conflict in Syria.
“I think we are seeing an example of mission creep right now,” said US Republican Representative Tom Cole, who signed the letter calling for a new AUMF. “I think we should go ahead. We are gradually ceding over our war-making authority to the president. Big mistake. No matter which side you are on, you ought to want Congress to do this, and you ought to be able to hold your member accountable for how they ultimately vote.”
After Obama announced late last month that he was deploying about 50 Special Operations forces to northern Syria, lawmakers released a flurry of statements urging the passage of new war powers legislation.
On Friday, a bipartisan group of 35 members of the US House of Representatives called on Speaker Paul Ryan to schedule and debate on a war authorization as quickly as possible in light of the US’ “deepening entanglement in Syria and Iraq.”
US Foreign Relations Committee chairman Senator Bob Corker has asked Obama’s administration to brief committee members as early as next week on the legal justifications for recent deployments to Syria and elsewhere.
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