Obama wants Congress to endorse his hesitant anti-ISIS strategy.
Napoleon famously said that in warfare if you vow to take Vienna—take Vienna. President Obama ’s version of that aphorism might be—on the way to Vienna stop to summer in Salzburg, only use air power, and if the fighting isn’t over in a couple of years call the whole thing off.
How else to interpret the amazing draft of a resolution that Mr. Obama sent to Congress Wednesday requesting an authorization to use military force against Islamic State? The language would so restrict the President’s war-fighting discretion that it deserves to be called the President Gulliver resolution. Tie me down, Congress, please. Instead of inviting broad political support for defeating ISIS, the language would codify the President’s war-fighting ambivalence.
The draft is especially notable for its disconnect between military ends and means. The preamble contains a long and accurate parade of horribles about the “grave threat” posed by Islamic State. These include “horrific acts of violence” against women and girls, the murder “of innocent United States citizens,” and its intention “to conduct terrorist attacks internationally, including against the United States, its citizens, and interests.” Really bad guys.
But then the resolution proceeds to inform these killers about the limits of what the U.S. will do to defeat them. Mr. Obama wants Congress to put into statutory language that it “does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations”; and that “the use of military force shall terminate” in three years “unless reauthorized.”
The time limit alone is reason to oppose the resolution, as we’ve seen in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama’s deadline on U.S. operations there has given the Taliban confidence to wait us out. A time limit also tells our coalition allies that the U.S. commitment against ISIS could end no matter the state of war at the time. Mr. Obama has said himself that degrading and destroying ISIS may take years, yet his draft would force the next President to seek a new authorization in 2018.
As for ground troops, Mr. Obama is asking Congress to endorse a military strategy that his own generals have said may be deficient. In a letter to Congress elaborating on the draft authorization, Mr. Obama says his draft “would provide the flexibility to conduct ground operations” in “limited circumstances, such as rescue operations” or “the use of special operations forces to take military action against ISIL leadership.” He says the resolution would only bar “long-term, large-scale ground combat operations” as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But then get ready to parse the meaning of “enduring” and “offensive” ground operations. Is enduring more or less than a year? Or a month? We’d guess that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders takes the under.
“Offensive” is even more subject to interpretation. Does that mean ground troops are acceptable as long as they shoot in self-defense? Or that they can do everything but take territory? Winning a war is hard enough without such legal complications.
Mr. Obama’s draft language fairly describes his current war strategy. But a flawed military strategy that is ambiguous is better than a flawed strategy written into law. Mr. Obama’s strategy can be changed by the next President—unless it is codified by a flawed authorization.
Mr. Obama’s language could also get worse as it moves through Congress. Many Democrats and GOP libertarians want even more specific limits on ground troops, a shorter time limit, and a geographic limit on where the U.S. can fight.
Yet the flaws in this half-hearted war strategy are already clear. ISIS continues to hold nearly all of the territory it did when Mr. Obama announced his plans in September. One exception is the town of Kobane in Syria, where Kurdish troops drove out the jihadists with U.S. bombing help. But Kobane now resembles Dresden after World War II—a bombed out, empty shell.
Many ISIS commanders have been killed, and they have been forced to move more furtively. But they were still able to stage an attack on the Kurdish oil city of Kirkuk in the last month. And they are conducting widespread assassinations against Sunni tribal leaders who resist them and ought to be allies of the U.S.-led coalition.
ISIS is also using its staying power against U.S. bombing to burnish its credentials as the jihadist vanguard. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that U.S. intelligence officials now say foreign fighters are joining Islamic State “in unprecedented numbers,” including 3,400 from Western nations out of 20,000 from around the world.
Rather than put shackles on his generals, Mr. Obama should be urging them to mount a campaign to roll back ISIS as rapidly as possible from the territory it holds. That would be a genuine defeat—and the world would see it as one. It would also be a demonstration to potential ISIS recruits that if you join the jihad, you are likely to die, and soon.
Many Republicans will be tempted to vote for some resolution as a show of anti-ISIS resolve, and we’d support one without restrictions. But Mr. Obama already has the power to fight this conflict from the 2001 al Qaeda and 2002 Iraq resolutions and as Commander in Chief under the Constitution. He says so himself. What he really wants from this new authorization is political cover for his military strategy. Better no new authorization than one that makes victory more difficult.