- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The U.S. military offensive against the Islamic State finally has an official name, but the larger strategy and legal justification behind the operation remain as murky as ever, more than 60 days after President Obama informed Congress of the campaign.

Legal specialists say the Obama administration is stretching the limits of a 2001 authorization of military force against al Qaeda by extending it to the Islamic State, the terrorist organization that now controls an expanding swath of territory across Iraq and Syria. At the same time, critics — led by top Republicans on Capitol Hill — say the White House’s military strategy to destroy the group simply isn’t working, even as President Obama and other administration officials insist otherwise.

The strategic and legal aspects of the U.S.-led war, dubbed “Inherent Resolve” by Pentagon officials Wednesday, are, at best, cloudy; at worst, detractors say the legal rationale is flawed and contrary to the Constitution, while the broader military plan against the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS, is doomed to fail and must be overhauled immediately.

“The strategy is not working. I think ISIS is really starting to pull the region apart on several levels,” said Samuel J. Brannen, a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Pentagon official during the Obama administration.

“The airstrikes are not achieving any sort of decisive effect on ISIS supply lines or its ability to take and hold territory,” he continued. “There are multiple parts of the strategy you can now call into question. The first is the Pentagon has been clear all along that the use of military force here is not going to achieve a decisive outcome vis-a-vis ISIS. But it’s not even achieving a tactical outcome at this point. I think it’s time for the administration to again take a really hard look” at what it’s doing.

The Islamic State on Wednesday moved closer to taking full control of Iraq’s crucial Anbar province and continues to approach Baghdad. U.S. military officials, however, say they believe Iraqi security forces can hold the capital.

SEE ALSO: More Americans support ground troops to combat the Islamic State: poll

In Syria, the group still is threatening to take control of the town of Kobani near the Turkish border, though Kurdish fighters reportedly have had some recent success in holding off the Islamist militants.

U.S.-led airstrikes have succeeded in pushing the Islamic State away from Iraqi towns such as Irbil and from critical pieces of infrastructure such as the Mosul Dam, but the group’s ability to capture and control large areas does not appear to have been affected by the American campaign.

The broader plan to defeat the Islamic State centers on airstrikes from the U.S. and its international partners coupled with ground attacks by moderate Syrian rebels and Iraqi security forces.

Thus far, those ground forces have shown no indication they’re up to the job.

Virtually no one in Washington supports sending U.S. ground troops into Iraq or Syria — something Mr. Obama has vowed not to do — but key lawmakers increasingly have taken aim at the administration’s current strategy.

“Everyone wants the president’s strategy to succeed, but right now it’s pretty clear we are not reversing ISIL’s momentum,” said Kevin Smith, spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “That has to change. The president must outline and implement a broader strategy for winning this fight.”

The administration is sticking to its guns.

Mr. Obama on Wednesday held a video conference with the leaders of Britain, France and other allies, and the White House said afterward the coalition will continue current efforts such as trying to stop foreign fighters from joining the Islamic State and building stronger moderate Syrian rebel forces and a more capable Iraqi military.

Pentagon officials are urging patience as the strategy unfolds.

“We’re on the right path,” Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN on Wednesday. He explained that the Defense Department chose to name the military operation “Inherent Resolve” because it will take time to succeed.

“We need to be able to be credible and sustainable over time in order to accomplish the mission that we’ve been given,” Gen. Dempsey said.

Meanwhile, the legal underpinnings of the administration’s war against the Islamic State are not entirely clear.

The White House has maintained that it has legal authority for the mission based on a 2001 authorization of force against al Qaeda, passed in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Lawmakers also passed an authorization of force against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2002.

Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, have urged the administration to seek new legal authority as it goes after the Islamic State.

Thus far, however, that hasn’t happened. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Times on Wednesday seeking information about the legal justification for ongoing airstrikes.

Legal specialists say lawmakers should stand firm and demand a vote on the mission or risk losing what little say they still have over military missions.

“Right now, they’re relying on the 2001 [authorization]. If they want to do that, they can technically say, ‘We have authority; that’s why we’re OK under the War Powers Resolution.’ But I think that would completely give away the war power to the president, which is completely contrary to the Constitution,” said Louis Fisher, a scholar in residence at the Constitution Project who spent four decades as a senior specialist in separation of powers at the Library of Congress.

Mr. Fisher said the administration’s position is inconsistent with past statements. Last year, Mr. Obama said he’d seek congressional approval for airstrikes against the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Those strikes never materialized after Mr. Assad agreed to give up his chemical weapons stockpile.

Now, with the U.S. conducting airstrikes against Islamist terrorists fighting the Assad regime, the White House has sought no new authority from Congress.

Mr. Boehner’s office maintains that the speaker would call the House back to Washington immediately if the president requested a vote on new authority.

Thus far, the White House hasn’t asked, but Mr. Fisher said Mr. Boehner or other congressional leaders should demand a vote.

“He doesn’t have to wait for the president to do that. He can call the House back. He’s ducking it too,” Mr. Fisher said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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