Battle without precedent to thwart Islamists

Islamic State now poses more palpable threat to the US than when President Obama sought congressional authorization for use of force in Syria last year.

US president Barack Obama addresses reporters in the White House press briefing room, (photo credit: REUTERS)
US president Barack Obama addresses reporters in the White House press briefing room,
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Raw urgency drove US President Barack Obama one year ago in his response to events fast unfolding in Syria, where, in late August, Washington shuddered after a single night saw the murder of 500 children and their mothers by heavy, illicit gas.
A full year later, despite the dramatic rise of Islamic State, no single moment has so effectively gripped the president or the Congress.
Because of what happened that night in Ghouta, on August 21, 2013, senators and congressmen found themselves rushing back to Washington from the summer recess to vote on the authorization of the use of force against its perpetrators.
Congressmen did so at the president’s request: his stated intent to conduct surgical, retributive strikes against the military infrastructure of Syrian President Bashar Assad – an operation limited in scope and duration— required the contribution of Congress, Obama said from the Rose Garden on August 31, 2013.
“All of us should be accountable as we move forward, and that can only be accomplished with a vote,” Obama said.
Now, the White House says that Islamic State poses a different threat and thus requires a fundamentally different response. The Obama administration does not seek to strike the Assad government – a regime that, for the last three years, it has cast as illegitimate. It does not seek to mobilize ground forces or to declare war on the group.
Indeed, the horrors of Ghouta posed to Obama a strategic, if academic threat to the national security of the United States: the use of weapons of mass destruction – be they chemical, biological or nuclear – generally demand responses that reinforce the integrity of international norms. The US had to prove to the world that consequences followed their use.
Now, Islamic State poses a much more direct and immediate threat to the US. A terrorist army has openly threatened to attack the American people, their assets and land. And top officials at the Pentagon have referred to the group as a threat beyond which the US has ever before seen.
Coupled with comments from the president himself, the current military strategy appears to go well beyond what was initially planned in Syria against Assad after the Ghouta attack. Military planners believe that going on “offense” against Islamic State, at its root in Raqqa, eastern Syria, would involve the US in broad military action for years to come.
The president currently has authorization for the use of force against al-Qaida forces, unrestricted by borders, if he determines that those forces are linked to the core of the group.
By authorization from Congress in 2001, the executive may target “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.”
The following year, Congress authorized the use of force in Iraq. That approval, along with Baghdad’s expressed invitation for US air strikes, have already been cited by the White House as ample legal justification for its current military campaign, restricted to Iraqi territory.
“I’m confident that I have the authorization that I need to protect the American people,” Obama said on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, when asked about expanding the assault to Syria.
In his initial effort to secure authorization in Syria last year, Obama called in support from frosty allies to whip up votes: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, American Jewish Committee, and other establishment lobbies in Washington worked on behalf of the president. The entire leadership in the House and Senate, across party lines, supported his efforts.
And yet despite that muscle, and despite the push occurring in an off-election year, the majority of House members appeared unwilling to support the measure.
Typical party affiliations did not apply; Democrats, too, were not prepared to fall in line.
Now, a midterm election threatens Democrats with the loss of the Senate. Pro-Israel organizations have remained largely mute on how to proceed against Islamic State. And hopes for unifying congressional leadership are nonexistent.
Despite the bluster, most members of Congress don’t want the vote: accountability, as the president put it, is unappealing to many in the heat of midterm elections.
Therefore, although proposed military action against Islamic State in Syria will last longer, require more resources, result in greater loss of life and more directly affect the national security landscape than the actions proposed after the Ghouta massacre, Obama appears less likely to seek authorization from Congress.
Should he proceed with such a war unauthorized – one that extends militarily beyond the drone strikes witnessed in Pakistan and longer than the limited allied campaign against Libya of 2011 – Obama may find himself in a conflict of a new sort, unchecked by the legislature and without referendum through reelection from the voters themselves.