Secretary of State John F. Kerry told Congress Tuesday that President Obama wants expansive war powers to pursue the Islamic State terrorists wherever and however he deems necessary, stunning lawmakers by requesting a war authorization that would even allow the Pentagon to commit American combat troops to the fight.
Though Mr. Obama doesn’t want combat troops, he won’t have Congress tie his hands against unforeseen directions the war could take should the Islamic State evolve, expand its fight to other countries or prove more difficult to rout, Mr. Kerry said.
“I don’t think anybody wants to get into a long-term ground operation here. But we also don’t want to hamstring the generals and the commanders in the field and the president, who’s commander in chief, from their ability to be able to make some decision they need to make,” Mr. Kerry told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
Mr. Kerry was deployed to try to quell a growing furor over the administration’s approach, but his appearance didn’t appear to help, with lawmakers of both parties saying the White House appears to be trying to delay Congress from acting while doing little to step up on its own.
“The reason we’re here is a total failure of the president to lead on this issue,” said Sen. Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the committee.
Mr. Obama has repeatedly refused requests to propose his own war resolution. Mr. Kerry said he didn’t think it mattered who goes first.
For now, Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the committee, has written a draft authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that would impose a three-year limit on the authority and forbid ground combat troops in most situations, with exceptions for intelligence gathering, acting as spotters or for rescue missions. He did not suggest a geographic limitation, however.
Lawmakers had hoped Mr. Obama, who won the presidency in 2008 in part due to his opposition to the Iraq War, would support strict limits. But Mr. Kerry said they don’t want to see them written into law.
“It sounds to me like you’re making the case for a rather open-ended authorization,” Mr. Menendez told Mr. Kerry, adding that he’s been disappointed with how little cooperation he’s gotten from the president’s team.
Mr. Menendez said he still plans to have his committee vote on Thursday on a war resolution, and if the Senate stays in session next week, he said he’d like to see a vote on the chamber floor.
He said he’ll push ahead even if they haven’t been able to iron out differences with Mr. Obama over limits to his war powers.
No matter what the Senate does, though, the debate won’t be finished this year.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, has said his chamber will take up the war debate next year — and he said it’s Mr. Obama’s job to propose a resolution to Congress and make the case for it to the American people.
The rise of the Islamic State, which goes by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL, has proved embarrassing for the president, who a year ago declared al Qaeda on the run and said it was time to begin ramping down the war on terror.
On Tuesday, Mr. Kerry made clear the administration considers the Islamic State, which has captured large swaths of Syria and Iraq, to be a branch of al Qaeda operating under a different name. He said that means Mr. Obama already has powers to go after them under the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, so even if Congress doesn’t act, the president will continue to pursue the war.
“The fact is that we’re going to continue this operation, because the president and the administration are absolutely convinced — and I respect your opinion — [that] we have the authority,” he said.
He also quibbled with lawmakers who called the fight against the Islamic State a “war,” saying it will be dramatically different than what the U.S. did in Afghanistan and Iraq in the previous decade.
Mr. Obama already has committed thousands of troops to Iraq in what he says is a supporting role, backing that country’s troops. And the U.S. has conducted airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria to try to halt Islamic State advances.
Meanwhile, a defense policy bill about to clear Congress authorizes the president to arm and train Syrian rebel groups for the next two years, with the hope that those rebels will take the fight to the Islamic State inside that country.
Senators did credit Mr. Kerry and Mr. Obama with pushing Iraq’s politicians to push for political unity, which has helped solidify much of the country in opposition to the Islamic State.
But Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has a long history of working with and against Mr. Kerry during their days together in the Senate, blasted his former colleague for being too timid in pursuing the Islamic State. He called Tuesday’s hearing a “charade.”