Congress Accepts Obama Action on Iraq – For Now
U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to authorize air strikes in northern Iraq triggered few complaints he acted without congressional consent — a surprising acquiescence lawmakers made clear could change abruptly change if the mission expands.
Mr. Obama on Thursday said any U.S. airstrikes would be targeted and tied to whether Islamist militants threatened American personnel or facilities, including the embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil. That rationale focused on Mr. Obama’s commander-in-chief duties, which are at their strongest when the lives of U.S. citizens are at stake, lawmakers said.
The question is what happens if the mission appears to broaden. In that scenario, lawmakers could start pushing for congressional votes on military engagement in Iraq – reviving an ongoing fight over the balance of power between Congress and the White House when it comes to foreign military action.
“Depending on how much further the administration wants to go beyond the authorized mission and beyond protection of personnel, he may be required to come to Congress to seek an authorization,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee who supports Mr. Obama’s decision to launch the current round of air strikes.
“It’s unlikely to be an isolated set of airs strikes” because the Islamic State “isn’t going away and the risk in the near-term is still going to be very profound,” Mr. Schiff said.
The 1973 War Powers Resolution limits the power of the president to authorize military action without congressional approval. The law calls for U.S. forces to withdraw within 60 to 90 days from their introduction into hostilities if Congress hasn’t authorized U.S. action and has been an ongoing point of dispute between the legislative and executive branches, including during the Obama administration.
In 2011, Mr. Obama endured a string of votes in the House of Representatives that rebuked him for intervening in Libya without congressional consent.
Last month, as the U.S. weighed how to respond to an offensive by Islamic State, Reps. Barbara Lee (D., Calif.) and Scott Rigell (R., Va.) led scores of colleagues in writing a letter to Mr. Obama saying it was the responsibility of Congress to authorize military strikes overseas. The lawmakers wrote that intervention in Iraq wouldn’t be “quick or easy” because only a political settlement could achieve a solution.
On Friday, several lawmakers warned that the mission in Iraq risked broadening and suggested that Mr. Obama was coming close to the point where he would need to seek congressional approval.
“I remain concerned about U.S. mission creep in Iraq and escalation into a larger conflict, which I oppose,” Ms. Lee said in a statement. “The president should come to Congress for authorization of any further military action in Iraq,” she added.
“Though I agree with and support these recent decisions by President Obama, my strong objection to his past willingness to disregard the War Powers Act, and concern that he may disregard it again, specifically in Iraq, remains,” Mr. Rigell said.
Contained within the fight are smaller battles about what steps to take beyond air strikes – if any.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D., Md.) said that the threat of the Islamic State was serious and urged the U.S. to assemble a group of allies to respond. “In the end, it’s going to take more than air, so we have to get a coalition together,” Mr. Ruppersberger said.
Mr. Schiff said the U.S. might need to do more to support the Kurds. He proposed providing arms if the Iraqi government withheld weapons and other military supplies, and supporting the direct sale of Kurdish oil if the Iraqi government withheld financial support. He said that current U.S. policy created legal impediments to the direct sale of Kurdish oil.
“We have a real partner in the Kurds – they’re a reliable ally,” he said. “They may be the only truly reliable partner we have in the region.”
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