The Obama administration does not believe that any congressional authorization of force in Iraq and Syria should prohibit the deployment of ground troops, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Tuesday, even as several lawmakers sought to impose limits on the U.S. response to the Islamic State.
President Obama has said he has no intention of deploying combat troops against the Islamic State in Syria, and U.S. troops deployed to Iraq this year are not engaged in front-line combat. But “that does not mean we should preemptively bind the hands of the commander in chief — or our commanders in the field — in responding to scenarios and contingencies that are impossible to foresee,” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Kerry also urged the committee not to bar the administration from taking the fight against the Islamic State to other countries or against other “associated forces,” if necessary.
“In our view, it would be a mistake to advertise to ISIL that there are safe havens for them outside of Iraq and Syria,” Kerry said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Kerry’s remarks came as the Obama administration seeks to lay the groundwork with Congress for a new authorization on the use of military force against the Islamic State. Although the administration says it is currently acting under measures passed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Obama has called for new authorization, and some members of Congress have openly chafed at what they consider a challenge to their constitutional prerogative.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is debating a bill that would grant that authority but would limit authorization to three years and ban ground forces except under narrow circumstances, such as for rescue missions, for intelligence-gathering or in support of targeted airstrikes.
Kerry said that U.S. officials expect the confrontation with the Islamic State to last many years but that the administration understands the desire to avoid an open-ended war authorization and supports a three-year limit, so long as it can be extended.
Overshadowing the hearing was the longest war in American history: the deployment of U.S. troops to Afghanistan, only now in its final stages. Several senators said they would not have voted to authorize military force if they had known the war would last so long, lead to so many Americans being sent there and leave so many veterans with life-transforming injuries and traumatic stress.
“Our fear is, if we don’t [bar ground troops], either this president or some future president will drag us into another deep, long-lasting, bloody conflict,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.).
The committee hearing is a prelude to a debate that is expected to continue into next year, when a new, Republican-led Congress is seated. Only a few days remain before Congress adjourns for the holidays, too little time for a vote.
The bill before the committee was written by its chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). He said Americans would not support an “endless war” that would help enlist recruits to a jihad against “Western crusaders.”
“In my view, deployment of ground troops at this time would be Groundhog Day in Iraq all over again,” he said.
Menendez said Congress never envisioned the current confrontation in Iraq and Syria when it authorized military force against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001, and he suggested that the Obama administration is overreaching.
“I do not believe that it provides the authority to pursue a new enemy in different countries under completely different circumstances than existed 13 years ago,” Menendez said. “Congress, rather than the executive, has the authority to authorize military action and to declare war for these very reasons.”
Kerry reiterated the administration view that the Islamic State is an offshoot of al-Qaeda, allowing it to be targeted under existing authorizations. The transformation of the group, which is now a rival to al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, was another reason not to limit the authorization to one group, he said.
“This is the same group,” he said. “These are the same people, with the stamp and imprimatur of Osama bin Laden.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he would not vote for any resolution that did not have geographical restraints. Otherwise, he said, the administration could carry the war “anywhere in the world.”
“If Medina or Mecca pledges allegiance to the Islamic State, they are open to being bombed by the United States,” he said, referring to the two Saudi cities that are the holiest sites in Islam.
“You are sending a message to the Middle East that no city is off limits,” he said.
Kerry scoffed at that idea, and he advised Rand to “make a presumption in the sanity of the president of the United States.”
“Nobody’s talking about bombing everywhere,” he said.