Congress, Obama must find common ground against the Islamic State


Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, salutes President Barack Obama during a Memorial Day ceremony this year in Arlington, Va. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Walter Pincus
Reporter August 25

Will journalist James Foley’s beheading be enough to bring President Obama and Congress together on a bipartisan program to deal with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria?

Although the Constitution allows the commander in chief to order the use of force to meet immediate national security threats, both history and political common sense argue that the president needs public backing and thus congressional support to deal with dangers posed by the rapid growth of the Islamic State.

Obama recognizes that the United States can’t accomplish this alone, but as he noted Wednesday, “From governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer [the Islamic State] so that it does not spread.”

What will that take?

Start with the foreign piece.

Late next month Obama will chair a U.N. Security Council meeting at the heads-of-government level to discuss ways to stop foreign fighters from entering Syria and Iraq.

A State Department official Thursday estimated that about 12,000 fighters from 50 countries — including 100 Americans — have entered Syria to join radicals such as the Islamic State group.

Obama’s appearance is aimed at getting a U.N. resolution to restrict the movement of such fighters. The president chaired a similar session in 2009 on nonproliferation, which led to a resolution pledging support for progress on reducing nuclear stockpiles.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters traveling with him to Afghanistan on Sunday that he expected Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to work with the United States against the Islamic State, according to the Associated Press.

Here at home, the president would be wise to get congressional authorization to take military action wherever necessary against the Islamic State, an option recently described by Washington Post reporter Karen DeYoung as under consideration.

To fulfill his pledge that in the wake of Foley’s execution “we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done and we act against” the Islamic State, Obama will have to go beyond rhetoric and the continuing drone and manned fighter strikes inside Iraq.

For one thing, as Dempsey made clear Thursday in a Pentagon news conference, the Islamic State cannot be defeated “without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria.”

Obama needs a practical sign, such as congressional authority to use force wherever necessary, to help mobilize other countries.

A resolution won’t stop Obama’s perpetual critics, but “it will force every member of Congress to take a stand, and it will diminish the rate and significance of carping down the road,” as former Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith said in his Lawfare blog Friday.

There will be a certain irony in Obama seeking authority to use force on the eve of the 2014 congressional elections. It was 12 years ago that President George W. Bush, on the eve of the 2002 congressional elections, pushed Congress to approve the use of force against “the continuing threat posed by Iraq” — a threat exaggerated by cherry-picked intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Still, a congressional resolution is only one piece of what the president should be seeking from Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers have yet to approve the $500 million Obama is seeking in fiscal 2015 to increase the training and arming of vetted Syrian opposition forces. A Defense Department spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, told reporters Friday that the money probably would not be available until early next year but “we want to have those authorities, and we want to have the resources that go with it.”

Another step the president should take is to establish a minimal but progressive surtax so that most Americans become involved in helping to pay the extra costs needed to meet this threat.

Limited defense funds have forced the Pentagon to shift money around, but as Dempsey said Thursday, “I think we’re fine for fiscal year 2014,” which ends Sept. 30. He added that a review was underway to see what added spending in Iraq and elsewhere “does to us in [fiscal] 2015,” which begins Oct. 1.

Bush’s Iraq war was the first in which a president failed to seek a special tax to help pay for the fighting. Republicans have sought to reduce domestic spending to meet the proposed costs of next year’s defense budget.

A better solution has always been a surtax. It helps to get the public directly engaged in supporting the effort.

Other Capitol Hill bills are also relevant to the fight against the Islamic State.

Both the House and Senate have been working on bills that could limit National Security Agency metadata and communications collections because they may include data from innocent Americans.

But organizations such as the Islamic State are using
e-mails, social media, video and cellphones to recruit fighters, including Americans.

FBI Director James B. Comey on Wednesday talked in Denver about how the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have been using the Internet for recruitment. Minnesota Public Radio in June released a story about one of 15 young Somali American men from Minneapolis-St. Paul who has used Facebook messages and photos to announce that he is fighting alongside the Islamic State.

Congress has a lot of work to do quickly, and as it weighs legislation affecting the NSA, it should remember the adage “First, do no harm.”

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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