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Opinion Three things Congress can do right now to fight the Islamic State

Setting up the French flag at the site of one of the targets of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. (Etienne Laurent/European Pressphoto Agency)
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The horror of Paris should be a wake-up call for Americans and for Washington. The United States must do more and could be doing more in the fight against the Islamic State (or ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, as it is also known). Unfortunately, Congress has not taken action on three specific items from President Obama that are languishing in its overstuffed inbox that would help.  

Item One: Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF)

“I recognize Barack Obama does not wish to defend this country,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said Saturday. A wonderfully hyperbolic and false statement that had the Republican presidential candidate’s audience no doubt nodding in agreement. “The president must stop trying to placate his political base by saying what he won’t do and tell Americans what he will do,” Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, wrote in a piece for PostEverything. “We must do what it takes.”

Pity Cruz, Romney and other Republicans don’t see fit to put their rhetorical muscle behind Obama’s nine-month push for a new AUMF. On Feb. 11, the president sent a letter to Congress seeking one that would “authorize the continued use of military force to degrade and defeat ISIL.” The opening of his letter could not have been more clear.

The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) poses a threat to the people and stability of Iraq, Syria, and the broader Middle East, and to U.S. national security.  It threatens American personnel and facilities located in the region and is responsible for the deaths of U.S. citizens James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig, and Kayla Mueller.  If left unchecked, ISIL will pose a threat beyond the Middle East, including to the United States homeland.

The Friday the 13th attacks in Paris are proof that the Islamic State poses a threat beyond the Middle East. That they come nearly two weeks after a downed Russian jetliner in Egypt and a day after bombings in Beirut shows a frightening westward expansion of the Islamic State’s exceptionally savage brand of terror. But two days before the Islamic State unleashed hell on the City of Light, Politico reported that the new AUMF “was left for dead.” It says Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the foreign relations committee, “is coming to the conclusion that a new AUMF is a nonstarter after the House and Senate have shown no interest in a divisive war debate.” As Politico points out, this is a bipartisan avoidance. Republicans don’t want to tie the president’s hands in responding to the Islamic State threat. Democrats don’t want to give him authority beyond what he already has.  

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The U.S. effort is not as robust as so many seem to believe it should be. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. military has been inactive or disengaged. Late last month, Obama announced that 50 Special Operations forces would be headed to work with resistance forces in northern Syria. On Thursday, U.S. airstrikes are believed to have killed notorious murderer “Jihadi John.” On Friday, just as the Paris attacks were underway, U.S. airstrikes killed a senior Islamic State leader in Libya.  

All of these actions and more by Obama against the Islamic State have been done by stretching AUMFs from 2001 (against Al Qaeda) and 2002 (against Saddam Hussein) to justify them. Obama’s push for a new AUMF sought to repeal the latter and keep the former. The attacks on Paris make the president’s assertion to ABC News before they occurred that the Islamic State is not “gaining strength” and that the terror group is “contained” seem needlessly optimistic. That all changed at 3:20 p.m. ET on Nov. 13.

Paris demands that Congress have that war debate it has avoided. Paris demands that we do everything possible to ensure the president of the United States not only has the legal authority needed to keep the Islamic State’s terror from happening here, but also has the nation behind him as he does it. To use a phrase that seems to be in favor among Republicans, it’s time Congress put its “big boy pants on” and get the president a new AUMF.

Item Two: Confirm Adam Szubin to undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes at Treasury

Szubin is one of the most important people in the fight against the Islamic State you’ve never heard of. Since February, he has been the acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes at the Treasury Department. That’s the office charged with choking off the funding to terrorist organizations and the governments that sponsor them.

Obama formally nominated Szubin to the position in April, and Republicans have blocked his nomination from the start. It’s not like he isn’t qualified. Szubin also serves as the director of the office of foreign assets control in the Treasury Department’s office of terrorism and financial intelligence. Under President George W. Bush, he served as counsel to the deputy attorney general at the Justice Department (2003-2004) before going to Treasury as senior adviser to the office Obama now wants him to lead (2004-2006).

Slamming Obama for the events of Paris, Republican presidential front-runner Ben Carson said he would be “using every resource known to man, in terms of economic resources,” among other things. Perhaps he can use some of his newfound influence with his fellow Republicans to get the Senate to confirm Szubin. Sure, he can do the job as an “acting” undersecretary. But “acting” doesn’t connote permanent. It doesn’t imply that Szubin’s job is secure to the people he needs to deal with in going after the “economic resources” of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. The Senate must confirm him.

Item Three: Confirm Gayle Smith to administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

The flood of refugees fleeing the war in Syria and streaming into Europe is a crisis made for the expertise of USAID. The $20 billion agency is the largest international aid organization in the world. Obama nominated Smith, who was on the president’s National Security Council, to head USAID in April. Even though her confirmation was approved by the Senate foreign relations committee on July 29, Smith’s nomination was blocked by Cruz because of his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

“The migrant crisis from the Middle East and North Africa demands our urgent attention,” Cruz said in a statement about the migrant crisis in September. “The United States has a long history of response to humanitarian disasters and this should be no exception.” For his words to mean anything, Cruz must lift his hold on Smith’s nomination and let her get to work.

“It is an act of war that was committed by a terrorist army, a jihadist army … against France,” French President François Hollande said to his grieving nation and a shocked world on Friday. The carnage and terror unleashed by the Islamic State in Syria have now been visited upon a world capital. As Congress comes back to Washington, it and Obama must do everything possible to ensure that what what happened in Paris does not happen anywhere in the United States or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. The three items above are a good place to start.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj