Nobody knows better than Hillary Clinton the steep political price to pay for voting in favor of an unpopular war. And nobody has worked harder to force lawmakers to set aside their reelection fears and vote on President Obama’s war on ISIS than her freshly anointed running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine.
Clinton’s 2002 “yes” vote on legislation permitting George W. Bush to hurl America’s military against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq helped smother her 2008 presidential hopes. Kaine has bluntly told colleagues who are worried about the long-term political fallout of voting yes (or no) to a war on ISIS that ducking a vote now amounts to cowardice and sets a terrifying precedent for unchecked presidential war-making power.
“What could be more immoral than ordering troops to risk their lives in a war that Congress was unwilling to publicly support?” Kaine asked at the Virginia Military Institute graduation in mid-May. “Members of Congress have chosen to avoid a vote on the theory that either a yes or no vote carries political risk. In my view, this is a shameful abdication of responsibility.”
The Virginian lawmaker, a member of the Senate committees on the armed services and foreign relations, first called in mid-2014 for Congress to vote on Obama’s undeclared but escalating war against the rampaging death cult also known as ISIL. The White House insisted at the time that it did not need legislation known as an authorization for the use of military force, or an “AUMF” in the jargon of D.C. hallways. Obama said that he had all the authority he needed in the AUMF passed to green-light the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the lasting war on al-Qaida, a notion Kaine has dismissed as an “Alice in Wonderland argument,” given that the so-called Islamic State did not exist until years later.
“We have allowed President Obama to wage an executive war of his own choosing without any Congressional permission for nearly two years,” the senator told VMI cadets. “It’s not hard to imagine that a future president will use this example to also justify initiating war without the permission of Congress.”
After stalling at the request of vulnerable Democratic lawmakers facing the voters in the 2014 midterm elections, Obama finally submitted an AUMF to Congress in February 2015, but it’s essentially dead.
The legislation reflects his national security aides’ desire that it not tie his hands. The document authorizes airstrikes in Iraq and Syria over the next three years. It forbids the use of American ground troops in “enduring offensive ground combat operations” — a term the White House describes as deliberately vague. It also allows strikes against “individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL” anywhere in the world.
Democrats have balked at supporting such a sweeping measure. Republicans have pointed to the three-year limit and the ground combat language to argue that the AUMF binds the hands of Obama’s successor.
The truth of the matter is that both sides see political peril in the president’s proposal. Clinton’s fate eight years ago haunts Democrats. And Republicans, who could vote to remove the language they describe as objectionable, prefer to criticize Obama’s handling of the conflict without taking any steps that might make them co-owners of the strategy.
The former secretary of state has mostly embraced Obama’s approach on the ground while lining up with Kaine on the idea that Congress must act.
In a November 2015 Democratic primary debate, she agreed with the president that the 2001 AUMF provides sufficient authority for the war on ISIS.
“It certainly does cover it,” she said. But war-making authority “would have to go through the Congress.”
Kaine has not hesitated to criticize Obama’s handling of the conflict, warning at one point in late 2015 that there was no “credible” strategy.
The U.S.-led bombing campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria began on Aug. 8, 2014. Obama asked Americans for support in a Sept. 10, 2014, televised address. Since then, the conflict has widened to Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen.
The U.S. military has suffered 19 casualties, including three people killed in action. As of May 15, 2016, the undeclared war has cost $7.5 billion, with an average daily cost of $11.7 million over 647 days, according to the Defense Department.
Last week, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump made headlines when he promised to “declare war” on ISIS. That’s something only Congress, not the president, can do, and it does so rarely. The United States has declared war formally against 11 nations in just five wars in its history: The War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II.
To greatly simplify a complicated legal discussion: War declarations have targeted other countries and have granted the president wide latitude to act, while triggering statutes that also give the commander in chief some domestic powers. AUMFs can be just as broad but have also historically been used to limit action to a specific kind of target (such as the Barbary pirates) or sometimes a specific kind of military resource (the Navy but not the Army, for example). They do not automatically give the president the same broader powers at home.
At VMI, Kaine urged voters to force Congress’s hand.
“To the extent that members of Congress think they can avoid a hard vote required by the Constitution, they believe that they can do so because of their belief that the citizenry will not hold them accountable for that,” he said. “You need to hold us accountable.”