Congress, in the midst of an internal battle over Iran, is looking for more oversight of the Obama administration on another major foreign policy front: the use of military force against the Islamic State.
"What I think Democrats are not willing to do is to give this or any other president an open-ended authorization for war," said Bob Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Wednesday, referring to the Bush administration's 2002 Iraq AUMF. "A blank check."
Menendez was speaking to Secretary of State John Kerry, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who appeared in front of the committee to discuss President Obama's request for an Authorization for Use of Military Force against the Islamic State. Most members support the resolution, submitted to Congress in February, but some were skeptical Wednesday about the scale of authority it would give the president.
Others were skeptical about something unrelated to the AUMF debate: Iran. Several members asked the panelists about the administration's Iran policy, and the recent letter sent by Republican senators to Iranian officials, which the White House said could interfere with ongoing negotiations. This line of questioning resulted in a visibly irritated Kerry.
"I believe much of our strategy with regards to ISIS is being driven by desire not to upset Iran so that they don't walk away from the negotiating table," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., referring to the emerging U.S.-led deal to curb Iran's nuclear program. "Tell me why I'm wrong."
"The facts completely contradict that," Kerry responded, adding that "you are misreading that if you think there is not a mutual interest" between the U.S. and Iran to defeat the Islamic State.
Kerry tried to clear up what he sees as a misinterpretation of the Iran negotiations by members of Congress. He said the talks are about preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon—no other issues are on the table during negotiations.
"It is almost insulting that the presumption here is that we are going to negotiate something that allows them to get a nuclear weapon," he said.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., asked Kerry for his views on the "unprecedented" letter that 47 Republican senators sent to Iran.
"Nobody is questioning anybody's right to dissent. ... But to write and suggest that they are going to give a constitutional lesson—which, by the way, was absolutely incorrect—is quite stunning," Kerry said, noting that the vast majority of international agreements, since the country's founding, have not required the consent of the Senate. The letter had warned Iranian officials that any such deals would have to be approved by Congress. "This letter ignores more than two centuries of precedence in the conduct of American foreign policy."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, another Republican who didn't sign the letter, tried to cut in during Kerry's response. "Mr. Secretary, I know that is a well-written speech—" But Kerry, visibly irritated, didn't let him.
"This is not a speech. This is about the impact of that irresponsible letter," Kerry said, later adding, referring to Murphy, "I'm asked by one senator what the impact is, and I am laying out what the impact is."
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, defended his signing of the Iran letter in response to Kerry's and others' comments about the missive.
"This indignation and beating over this letter is absolute nonsense," Risch said, adding that each senator who signed the letter had the authority to do so as an elected official in the "first branch of this government."
"To say that we should not be communicating is nonsense," Risch said, because members of Congress consistently communicate with foreign leaders.
A day before the hearing, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the more hawkish members of his party, told National Journal that Democrats and Republicans are too divided on the issue for the AUMF to go through.
"Oh, the AUMF is dead on arrival ... it won't work," Graham said. "I want to keep it really simple. Do what you need to to destroy and degrade ISIS wherever they are located, period. ...I think the libertarians and the liberals would say 'no.' "
Corker said before the hearing that, "I think we all know, at present, whether we pass an AUMF or don't pass an AUMF has zero effect on what is happening on the ground, none, zero."
Kerry said Wednesday that Congress must look past party differences.
"Responding to the threat posed by ISIL is just not a partisan issue—at least it shouldn't be," Kerry said, using a different name to refer to the terrorist organization. "It's not even a bipartisan issue. It's really a test that transcends political affiliation, and it's a tremendous challenge to the security of our nation."
The AUMF would give the president the authority to use armed forces against the terrorist group for three years after it goes into effect, with the opportunity for renewal after that. The request would also repeal the 2002 AUMF for the Iraq War, while leaving in place a 2001 resolution that gives the president the power to use force against any groups deemed affiliated with the September 11 terrorist attacks. The request also limits armed forces in "enduring offensive ground combat operations," language that some members of Congress worried was excessively broad and that White House press secretary Josh Earnest called "intentionally fuzzy" so the administration can respond to a changing situation on the ground.
Echoing his war-tired Democratic colleagues' concerns about using ground forces to defeat the Islamic State, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland questioned on Wednesday whether the AUMF would allow for long-lasting operations similar to those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kerry said the U.S. mission against the terrorist group isn't like those previous campaigns. "There is a huge distinction between the kinds of operations we are conducting in Afghanistan and Iraq, where we committed a significant number of troops for a long period of time," Kerry said. "The president has ruled that out."
Kerry believes the language of the AUMF restricts military action while providing some wiggle room for special forces, for example.
"The whole purpose here is to have a concept "¦ that is extremely limited, but not so limiting that our military cannot do what it needs to do in some situations to protect America's interests or American personnel," he said.
Arizona Republican Jeff Flake asked whether this AUMF is necessary if the president believes he has the authority to use force against the Islamic State under provisions within the 2001 resolution. "At what point does it become unuseful to have an AUMF that would pass with the partisan vote?" asked Flake, one of the few Republican senators who didn't sign the letter to Iranian leaders. "Is it worse than no AUMF at all?"
"Is it worse than no AUMF? Absolutely," Kerry said. The administration has the authority to act under the 2001 resolution, he said, but it doesn't want to operate on a decade-old request and is seeking an updated mandate from Congress.
"Are there some questions from some people about the sustained power of the United States of America? Sometimes you hear that. I hear that, in the course of diplomacy," Kerry said. "And I think it is important to answer that in this context at this time."
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., was concerned about the AUMF's three-year duration. "Wouldn't we be better off sending a clear signal that there is no end to this conflict as far as we are concerned until we win the victory?"
Kerry said the timeframe doesn't mean the administration is unserious about the fight against the Islamic State. It just provides Congress and the next president with more flexibility. It is "a statement of respect by President Obama, for him to say to the next president, to the Congress: Review this, take a look at this, see how it is going," Kerry said. "Tweak if necessary."
Kerry left the hearing after three hours. Corker continued to press the remaining panelists about the timespan of the AMUF.
Carter reaffirmed that the administration's three-year provision isn't related to any current predictions within the White House or military.
"We do not know how long it will take to defeat ISIL," Carter said. The proposed duration of the AUMF "does not derive from any expectation on how long the campaign will last. It derives from the political calendar of our country."
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