Congress and the art of the empty gesture

Mitch McConnell has introduced a measure authorizing the use of force against ISIS.
Mitch McConnell has introduced a measure authorizing the use of force against ISIS. No, he really did.


Congress may, just may, finally take up a joint resolution authorizing President Obama to use military force against ISIS.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quietly introduced just such a measure on Wednesday, and with so little fanfare that the move surprised even his own colleagues:

When the National Journal asked Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn to comment on the fact that McConnell had introduced the resolution, he replied, “He did?”

Here’s the text of the operative part of the proposed authorization. The full resolution can be read here:

The President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force in order to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, its associated forces, organizations, and persons, and any successor organizations.

But look what’s missing here:

  • There’s no expiration date for the authorization.
  • There are no imposed geographical limitations in terms of authorized theater of operations.
  • There’s no limitations imposed in terms of states, groups, or individuals who can be targeted militarily.
  • And most importantly, there are no limits placed on the extent of military force that the president can employ, including as many American “boots-on-the-ground” as this, or any future president, thinks is necessary.

In short, under the McConnell proposal, this president, and his successors, will be authorized to use any level of force, anywhere in the world, for as long as he or she wants, so long as a link to ISIS can be asserted. It’s the 9/11 authorization all over again, just with the names changed.

As I wrote back in November, up until now the Obama Administration had been relying on that post-9/11 authorization to use force against Al Qaeda for the legal authority to drop bombs on ISIS and to assist local forces in Iraq and Syria, including with special forces units. And Congress, until now, had shown no appetite for putting itself on the hook by giving the president a new authorization, despite Obama’s explicit request for one back in February 2015.

So this new measure is a step in the right direction in terms of assigning real responsibility for policy toward ISIS and creating a framework of accountability for its outcome. All of which is why its not likely to make any real difference.

Because one thing that we have long known is that Congress really doesn’t like having to answer for military operations. If they authorize something and it goes disastrously wrong they don’t want the blame. If they tie the president’s hands by refusing to authorize and something catastrophic happens later, they don’t want to have to explain that either.

Congress wants to be able to hold presidents accountable for how they use military force, but doesn’t want to take responsibility itself. From Congress’ perspective it’s just easier, and safer, to let the president go his own way so that they can cheerlead or snipe as they see fit and as the political winds blow.

So it is unsurprising that McConnell, having introduced a joint resolution, seems in absolutely no hurry to schedule a vote. The Atlantic report cited at the top of this post sums the situation up nicely:

The president’s undeclared war on ISIS puts Republicans in an awkward spot. GOP leaders don’t want to look as though they have ceded authority, a perception Republicans risk if they fail to act as a check on the administration’s power to deploy military force. But if Congress does authorize military force, such an action might be construed as a stamp of approval for the president’s broader foreign-policy objectives, making it harder for the GOP to credibly level criticism against the administration as it fights the Islamic State.

For now, McConnell can point to the resolution as evidence that Republicans are working to hold the president accountable, and perhaps convince the administration to take a harder-line in the fight against ISIS. The measure also gives the majority leader a chance to paint a picture of a more assertive brand of Republican foreign policy compared to a more constrained approach from the administration.

Overthinking Sarah Palin

trump-palin-2016Conor Friederdsorf, who’s usually pretty level-headed, has a remarkably off-target piece over at The Atlantic today in which he suggests that Sarah Palin has rethought her commitment to neoconservative foreign policy and ditched it in favor of the still-muscular but restrained (in foreign policy terms) sensibilities of Donald Trump (whom she endorsed to much fanfare yesterday) and Rand Paul. Palin, he writes:

has always been an interventionist hawk. Bill Kristol played a part in her riseMatthew Continetti defended her at book length. If the Tea Party runs the gamut from non-interventionist Rand Paul to on-the-fence Ted Cruz to neoconservative Marco Rubio, Palin once aligned most closely with a Rubio-style foreign policy. It’s why an otherwise uncomfortable political marriage with McCain could work.

What’s the fundamental flaw in this take on Palin? It proceeds from an assumption that Palin ever had any semblance of a coherent foreign policy thought in her head that didn’t stem from her desire to boost her own profile. To his credit, Friedersdorf recognizes this may be behind her apparent change in approach:

One theory is that Palin never had any real foreign-policy convictions. She allied with George W. Bush when it was popular to do so in her party, adopted John McCain’s attitude when it was politically advantageous, and is changing again now that her most likely path to political relevance lies within a Trump Administration.

Too bad he dismisses the idea a paragraph later, offering the alternative theory that she has changed her stripes because foreign policy was never a priority for her.  Ultimately, he writes, it doesn’t matter because Palin’s break with the neocons is what’s really significant. And thus this:

Going forward, it will be fascinating to see what Palin says about foreign policy, especially if Trump squares off against Hillary Clinton, with her neocon proclivities.

No, you know, not really. It won’t be fascinating at all except in the way that a multi-car pileup is fascinating as you rubberneck your way past on the freeway.

The truth is, Bill Kristol and the other neocons weren’t drawn to Palin by her ideas, but by her story, her frontier image, and above all, by her looks. The shallowness of Palin’s rise to national prominence is nicely captured in this October 2008 piece from The New Yorker.

And now she’s back. Once again she’s basking in the glow of attention from media and pundits. Once again, we’re falling for the con.

Thank Congress for Obama’s freestyling on Syria

congress syria 2

Last week President Obama announced that US Special Forces would be deployed to northern Syria to aid Kurdish fighters battling ISIS. This puts American “boots on the ground” (albeit a very small number) to compliment the ongoing air campaign that the US began waging against the Islamic State in August 2014, first in Iraq and now Syria.

Wait just one minute, I hear you saying. Under what authority is Obama getting the US deeper and deeper into the Syrian quagmire? That’s easy, says White House spokesman Josh Earnest:

Congress in 2001 did give the executive branch authorization to take this action, and there’s no debating that.

Hold on, hold on! That was just to give George W. Bush the authority to take out Al Qaeda and punish those that enabled the attacks of Sept. 11. What’s that got to do with ISIS?

Let’s take a look, shall we? Here’s what Congress passed on Sept. 18, 2001, just a week after 9/11:


(a) IN GENERAL.—That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001,or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

The White House argues that this gives them all the authority they need. And here’s why:

The Obama Administration has stated that the Islamic State can be targeted under the 2001 AUMF because its predecessor organization, Al Qaeda in Iraq, communicated and coordinated with Al Qaeda; the Islamic State currently has ties with Al Qaeda fighters and operatives; the Islamic State employs tactics similar to Al Qaeda; and the Islamic State, with its intentions of creating a new Islamic caliphate, is the “true inheritor of Osama bin Laden’s legacy.” This interpretation seems to suggest that the Islamic State could be treated either as part of Al Qaeda that has splintered from the main group, or as an associate ofAl Qaeda; under either interpretation, the Islamic State would arguably be targetable under the 2001 AUMF.

What Congress gives, though, theoretically, Congress could take away. Actually it’s not a theory at all. Congress has the power to entertain a new authorization specifically focused on the use of military force in Syria against ISIS. If you argued that Congress has a constitutional responsibility to take up such a measure I’d be the last to contradict you. In fact Obama asked Congress for just such an authorization back in February. You can read the proposed text here.

AS CNN reported, congressional leaders were quick to criticize yet unwilling to act. House Republicans simply dismissed the proposed authorization as, wait for it, too limited:

“If we are going to defeat this enemy, we need a comprehensive military strategy and a robust authorization, not one that limits our options,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement … “Any authorization for the use of military force must give our military commanders the flexibility and authorities they need to succeed and protect our people … I have concerns that the president’s request does not meet this standard.”

And so that’s where it sits, even as new developments in Syria prompt some members, like Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), to call on Congress to rein in Obama:

We’re setting an absolutely horrible precedent that this body will come to regret with respect to handing over the ability for a president to wage a war carte blanche without a vote.

But the reality is that Congress won’t. Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told NPR this week that not only does he agree with the administration’s position, but that debate would reveal division when the country needs to project unity in the fight against ISIS:

As I’ve said from the beginning, I believe the administration has the authorities to do what they’re doing against ISIS. … So to enter into a debate when you don’t see a pathway forward that may appear to show disagreement over countering ISIS to me does not seem like a prudent course of action to take, especially when, like me, I believe they have authority anyway.

The bottom line is that Congress sees no up side for itself either in signing off on any use force against ISIS or in actively reining in the president. If it goes badly, Congress can lay all the blame squarely at the president’s feet. But if they approve it, they share ownership. If Congress blocks escalation against ISIS and that turns out to be a strategic and humanitarian disaster, then they’re on the hook for preventing Obama from acting decisively. But by doing nothing Congress can sit back and throw bricks at the president and his Syria policy without taking any responsibility for it. Some might argue that’s a win.

Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate sums it up this way:

Many members of Congress want it both ways. They want to criticize the president, but they don’t want to have it on their conscience or their shoulders that they authorized it.

So thanks but no thanks. Constitution be damned. President Obama, take the ball and run just as far as you want. We’ll see you on the other side.

Syria solved!


After five years of brutal civil war in Syria, an agreement has finally been reached on peace talks with the aim of establishing a nationwide ceasefire. The United Nations will oversee the rewriting of Syria’s constitution and then new elections that will presumably mark the end of the Assad family’s dictatorial rule.

There’s only one problem.

None of the parties doing the actual fighting were part of the negotiations in Vienna.

Assad wasn’t invited, and, as the New York Times reports, it is “unclear” whether either he or any of the constellation of rebel groups will agree to the deal.  The uncertainties don’t end there:

There was no target date or deadline for either the cease-fire or a new constitution and election that would follow.

Even the language used to describe what was decided after the final seven hours of heated talks between the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, along with additional European, Arab, and Gulf states, 17 countries in all, was obscure and vague. As Secretary of State John Kerry explained, the parties have agreed to “explore the modalities of a nationwide cease-fire” on the way to a new political arrangement for Syria.

So what was the point of all this? A couple of things come to mind.

First, the ceasefire plan specifically does not apply to combat against ISIS. This suggests that the US and Russia might finally end up on the same side here rather than working at cross purposes. With Obama’s announcement today that the US will deploy Special Operations forces into Kurdish-controlled territories in northern Syria, that Russia and the US might finally be fighting the same enemy is particularly welcome news.

Second, the agreement to seek a new constitution and elections for Syria signals that Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, are willing to see him go, which further suggests that they can see a way to secure their own separate interests in any post-Assad dispensation. This is important because, as I noted in a post several weeks ago, Russian military intervention to date can be seen to be creating conditions on the ground in which the US (and everyone) else would be forced to choose between a Syria under Assad and a Syria which falls to ISIS.

Third, it offers some semblance of hope that with both Iran and Saudi Arabia at the table together, the proxy war aspect of the Syrian situation may start to ratchet down in intensity.

Whether any of this bears actual fruit remains to be seen. The negotiations will reconvene in a few weeks to try to iron out details. And at some point someone will have to try and bring the forces on the ground into the discussions as well. That will be challenging enough.

Until then, this is the first sign of progress on the political front in a very long time. That’s worth something. Exactly how much it means we will have to wait to find out.