What do Syrian President Bashar Assad and the U.S. Congress have in common? President Obama is unlikely to ask either for a formal green light to expand the American air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from Iraq into Syria.
White House aides underline that the debate remains academic for now because the president has yet to decide whether he will order strikes on the brutal Islamist movement’s strongholds in Syria.
“We have not speculated about what sort of authority would be required from Congress if the president were to make a decision to authorize the use of military force in Syria,” Obama spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday.
But Earnest noted that Obama does not think he needs congressional approval for the airstrikes he launched on ISIL forces in Iraq on Aug. 7 or for the return of ground troops there to protect American personnel.
“The current military action that has been ordered in Iraq is vested in the powers of the commander in chief,” said the spokesman, who reaffirmed “our commitment to coordinating with Congress as we deploy that power.”
The White House has repeatedly trumpeted its “consultations” and “coordination” with lawmakers and its “notifications” to Congress about deployments against ISIL under the 1973 War Powers Act. That law, which presidents have never accepted as constitutional, was designed to limit the ability of the chief executive to send troops overseas absent a formal declaration of war. But top Obama aides have refused to commit to seeking congressional authorization as required by the law 60 days after American forces first enter into hostilities.
Asked on Aug. 8 whether Obama would abide by that stricture, Earnest sidestepped the question.
“The only thing I can speak to right now is this administration’s commitment to complying with the notification requirements of the War Powers Act,” he said.
For now, that’s just fine by Congress, which is poised to return after a month-long August recess.
The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee, and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, who heads the committee's Middle East Subcommittee, have called separately for the Obama administration to secure congressional authorization.
But “no one is really clamoring for them (the administration) to come to us,” a senior Democratic Senate aide told Yahoo News.
There are “no plans at the moment” to call for a vote, said a senior Republican House aide.
On Monday, Earnest left open the narrow possibility that the administration might seek additional funds for operations against ISIL, also known as ISIS, or the Islamic State.
A top Senate Democratic aide told Yahoo News late last week that the president’s allies in Congress might find that the least politically toxic option. “A stand-alone War Powers vote is about Obama. A vote to fund the troops is about the troops,” the aide said. That might reduce the political danger of siding with the embattled president and buck the public’s largely anti-interventionist mood.
Earnest seemed to embrace that possibility.
“If additional resources are requested or needed, we’ll make that request,” the spokesman said Monday. “And we hope that we’ll see the kind of bipartisan support we’ve traditionally seen from Congress to ensure that our men and women in uniform who are putting their lives on the line to protect the country is adequately and consistently funded.”
But even that backdoor option drew a withering response from a top Democratic House aide.
“It's stupid to go for a vote. This is a stupid, stupid idea. There's no need for money, so this is just a stupid idea,” that official told Yahoo News. The official requested anonymity to speak candidly about the political situation.
Among the relatively small number of lawmakers who typically insist that presidents follow the requirements of the War Powers Act, those who want the United States to help Iraq take on ISIL are torn. They recall how Obama declared almost exactly one year ago that he had decided the United States should launch airstrikes against Assad’s forces, that he had the legal authority to do so with or without Congress but ultimately backed off when he could not get lawmakers’ approval.
An aide to one Democratic senator in that position told Yahoo News that the lawmaker generally believes Congress should weigh in.
“Problem is, he also wants the U.S. to act. What if, like with Syria last time, Congress balks and the U.S. steps away again? It's a tough call,” the aide said.
But Earnest emphasized that “the situation a year later is markedly different.”
“The goal of the mission from last year was aimed squarely at the Assad regime and was in response to the intel(ligence) assessment that they had used chemical weapons” against Syrian civilians, he said.
“What we’re talking about now is confronting a terrorist group that has sought safe haven in Syria,” Earnest said. “This is a group that poses a threat to Americans in the region and could potentially down the line pose a broader threat to American interests and our allies around the globe.”
In fact, the administration has laid the groundwork since the very early months of 2014 for unilateral action on the grounds that ISIL could eventually threaten America directly.
In January and February, top intelligence officials compared Syria to Yemen and suggested ISIL had found safe haven in areas beyond Assad’s reach.
In June, when Obama announced plans for limited military action in Iraq against ISIL, top aides told reporters on a White House-arranged conference call that the United States might pursue the group into Syria.
“We don't restrict potential U.S. action to a specific geographic space,” one official said.
According to several media outlets, Obama has already given the green light to U.S. surveillance flights over Syria, a possible prelude to an American military campaign.