Congress wary of Obama's war power draft

Congress wary of Obama's war power draft
US President Barack Obama is flanked by Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Secretary of State John Kerry (R) as he delivers a statement on legislation sent to Congress to authorise the use of military force against the Islamic State.

The draft war powers resolution submitted to Congress was largely greeted with wariness in Washington on Wednesday, as lawmakers and pundits criticised the overtly vague wording of the document.

That sets up a lengthy debate in Congress in the coming weeks, and lawmakers will likely amend the resolution heavily as they seek clarity - while avoiding changes that could limit US options in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

President Barack Obama presented Congress with a draft of the new Authorisation for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which would, for a three-year period, formally allow the President to continue attacks against "ISIS or associated persons or forces", but prohibit "enduring offensive ground combat operations" - a clause which limits the use of ground troops, yet leaves some wiggle room for the administration.

The clause is meant to reassure lawmakers and the public that the US would not get involved in another costly and bloody ground war. Yet, in a televised address, President Obama stressed the need for flexibility to deal with "unforeseen circumstances", while limiting the use of ground troops.

In a letter to Congress, Mr Obama said the administration would have the ability to "conduct ground combat operations in other, more limited circumstances" such as rescue operations or the use of special operations forces.

Congressional debates on the draft's language, which are expected to take place only after next week's recess, will have to be careful not to be too restrictive, said Mr Chris Chivvis, associate director of the International Security and Defence Policy Centre at research organisation Rand Corporation.

"They will try to keep the limitations, but keep the President's authority as wide as possible," he said.

Associate Professor Shoon Murray of the School of International Service at American University said the current draft is "a compromise" to please left- and right-wing lawmakers.

"On the Republican side, they want the President to have the tools he needs to conduct successful operations, and on the Democratic side, they do not want long-term combat," she said.

Democrats voiced concerns about the draft's language.

Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia said in a statement that he is "concerned about the breadth and vagueness of the US ground troop language, and will seek to clarify it".

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said the Senate would "review the President's request thoughtfully", and would take into account recommendations from military commanders as they consider the best strategy to beat ISIS.

But House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, was still unconvinced by the President's strategy to defeat the militant group.

Looking at the draft war authorisation from another perspective, Dr Rick Brennan, senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, said it sends a "terrible message".

It tells coalition partners that "other people should put their soldiers in harm's way, but the United States is not going to do it", said Dr Brennan.

He added: "As ISIS, I would be happy because I know the US is only prepared to do so much."

This article was first published on Feb 13, 2015.
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