Bucking Obama, senior Democrat seeks limits on war against Islamic State

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., questions Deputy Attorney General James Cole; Chris Inglis, deputy director of the National Security Agency; Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the National Security Agency; Deputy Director of the FBI Sean Joyce, and Robert Litt, general counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; as they testify before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence regarding NSA surveillance in Washington, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Frustrated with White House inaction, a senior House of Representatives Democrat will introduce legislation Wednesday formally authorizing President Barack Obama’s war on the so-called Islamic State nearly six months after it began. Rep. Adam Schiff’s Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) would impose strict limits that the Pentagon publicly opposes, forbidding the use of U.S. ground troops to carry out combat missions and limiting military action to Iraq and Syria.

Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in an exclusive interview with Yahoo News that he is “frustrated generally because we haven’t had any movement on an authorization and we’ve been at war almost half a year.

“I’m frustrated with the White House, but I have the most discomfort with the Congress itself, because it’s our constitutional responsibility to declare war,” the California lawmaker said. “We’re the institution that has the strongest interest in moving and exercising our prerogative under the Constitution.”

The legislation, which would expire in three years, would immediately repeal the 2002 AUMF that permitted the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2001 AUMF that approved the campaign in Afghanistan. Obama has said those measures give him the legal authority to strike the extremist group, also known as ISIL or ISIS, without separate congressional approval. Lawmakers in both parties disagree.

U.S. President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden (L) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) looking on, delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 24, 2012. (REUTERS/Saul Loeb/Pool)

Obama said in his first press conference after the November 2014 elections that he would work with Congress to develop an AUMF on Iraq and Syria, and used his State of the Union speech on Jan. 20 to “call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force.” Aides to key lawmakers told Yahoo News that, as of Jan. 26, the White House had still not explicitly laid out what it wanted the AUMF to say. Traditionally, the White House drafts this kind of legislation and sends it to Congress.

Schiff’s proposal was certain to draw opposition from the Pentagon. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, said late last week that any AUMF covering the Islamic State should not limit the fight geographically and should not expire. He also appeared to argue against placing limits on the use of U.S. ground forces.

"I think in the crafting of the AUMF, all options should be on the table, and then we can debate whether we want to use them,” Dempsey told the official Defense Department news service. “But the authorization should be there."

Asked about Dempsey’s comments, Schiff told Yahoo News that the administration is always free to come back to Congress to seek wider authorization.

“If the circumstances change, and the president finds it necessary to use combat troops in combat missions, then he should come back to the Congress to seek that authority,” the lawmaker said. “Likewise, on geography, we are not authorizing the country to go to war with (Nigerian extremists) Boko Haram. If circumstances change, then the president can come back and ask us for more authority.”

It’s not clear what fate Schiff’s resolution, which would allow the use of U.S. ground troops in special operations missions or to perform training, advisory or intelligence missions, will meet in Congress. Most Republicans who have weighed in on the AUMF have taken positions in line with Dempsey’s. Some Democrats, like Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, are closer to Schiff’s view, while others favor compromise language that would simply underline that Obama has repeatedly said he has no plans to order Americans into combat on the ground.

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey (R) and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testify before the House Armed Services Committee about the ongoing fight against the group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIL) in the Rayburn House Office Building November 13, 2014 in Washington, DC. The United States military continues to bomb ISIL targets in both Iraq and Syria and plans to double the number of American troops in Iraq to 3,000. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“Having reasonable sunsets and geographic limitations on Authorizations for Use of Military Force ensures regular assessment of the mission to re-evaluate goals and benchmarks and determine whether it is in the national interest to continue as originally intended,” an aide to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democrat told Yahoo News. “Absent such temporal and geographic limitations, we risk keeping the country on a perpetual war footing that could last years — or decades — beyond the intended scope of the mission.”

The White House has struggled for months with whether and how to seek lawmakers’ approval for the military campaign.

In December, with the Senate still in Democratic hands, Secretary of State John Kerry pressed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee not to “pre-emptively bind the hands of the commander in chief” by restricting the use of ground troops or limiting the fighting geographically. That put the administration at odds with Democrats inclined to impose those kinds of curbs, and aligned the White House with Republicans inclined not to limit executive-branch war-making power.

“I suppose if I were in the White House I’d be making the same argument to preserve presidential prerogative and presidential freedom of action,” Schiff said. “But we have experience now with two authorizations that have long outlived their intended lives. We want to avoid a repetition of that.”

In January, after Republicans formally took over the Senate, Obama promised them he would soon send up legislation language.

But the White House has found itself in an unusual conundrum. Administration officials say Obama national security aides like Dempsey want to see an AUMF that sets few, if any, limits. But Obama’s political aides are worried that pursuing that course could cost them the support of many — perhaps even most — Democrats in Congress, undermining the president’s position.

Meanwhile, as official Washington has dithered, the price tag for Operation Inherent Resolve against IS keeps climbing. As of Jan. 9, the total cost of operations since the first American airstrikes on Aug. 8 had topped $1.3 billion for more than 1,700 airstrikes. Obama has ordered about 3,000 U.S. ground troops to Iraq. Three American military personnel have died.

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: In this Monday, Nov. 17, 2014 file photo, smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border. With more than a thousand militants killed and territory slipping away, the Islamic State group is losing its grip on the Syrian border town of Kobani under intense U.S.-led airstrikes and astonishingly stiff resistance by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)