US President Barack Obama, in the eyes of the Republicans in the US Congress, is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. This is now particularly obvious following his proposal to the US Congress that it authorizses military action against ISIL (also called ISIS) to bring an end to the reign of terror they have unleashed directly in the Middle East and in targeted countries in the West.
Immediately after President Obama’s proposal to Congress, leading Republicans, who had accused him of dithering and delaying in dealing firmly with ISIL, criticised his plans. They have argued and continue to argue for a full scale war to destroy ISIL. But, the Republican Party is divided on the issue and despite the noise being sounded in the media, President Obama has wrong-footed them in two ways.
First, Obama does not need Congressional approval for the action he proposes so the Republicans cannot overturn his request. The authorisation of use of military force (AUMF) is a law passed by Congress that empowers the President to use U.S. military force. But, while Obama wrapped his proposal in the paper of national unity, he is fully aware that he does not need their authorisation; his objective was precisely what he will achieve – Congressional approval from which the Republicans cannot distance themselves.
A White House briefing states: “Although the President already has the legal authority he needs to take action against ISIL, he has noted that we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. A bipartisan authorisation of the use of military force against ISIL would provide a clear and powerful signal to the American people, to our allies, and to our enemies that the U.S. is united behind the effort to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL”.
Second, the Republicans also know that while the Constitution empowers Congress not to authorise the provision of money that the President needs to conduct a war, it does not allow for Congress to compel the President to fight a war. In this connection, the Republicans will eventually have to accept Obama’s proposal and, therefore, become part of the authorisation of it. Once they have done so, they will not be able to carp at a plan that they have themselves endorsed.
Obama also knows that he is on safe ground with the majority of the American people who do not want their soldiers to die in wars that do not threaten the borders of the United States. That is why on February 11, in announcing the proposal to Congress for the AUMF, he publicly said: “I’m convinced that the United States should not get dragged back into another prolonged ground war in the Middle East. That’s not in our national security interest and it’s not necessary for us to defeat ISIL. Local forces on the ground who know their countries best are best positioned to take the ground fight to ISIL — and that’s what they’re doing”.
Millions of Americans would have breathed a sigh of relief and Obama’s popularity ratings would have risen. Within their own ranks the Republicans are well aware of this reality, and it will cause the majority of them to temper their criticism of Obama on this issue.
The danger the Republicans face is that if they continue the rhetoric for greater involvement of US military on the ground, they will lose support from the American people in the 2016 Presidential elections. Obama himself won wide backing for his own election to the Presidency in part because of his strong opposition to the wars waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, by his Republican predecessor George W Bush that cost American lives and depleted its treasury.
The man touted to be most likely to succeed for the Republicans in the next Presidential elections, Jeb Bush, has been very careful in his response to Obama’s proposal, saying: “We should not be timid about expressing exactly what their (ISIL) goals are … to challenge our way of life, and I think we need to develop a world strategy to take them out.”
Those words aren’t much different from President Obama’s statement that: “This resolution reflects our core objective to destroy ISIL. It supports the comprehensive strategy that we have been pursuing with our allies and partners: A systemic and sustained campaign of air strikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria”. In other words, like Obama, Jeb Bush is not advocating unilateral US combat involvement.
For Obama’s part, while playing to US sentiment against the involvement of combat troops to battle ISIL by saying, “I do not believe America’s interests are served by endless war, or by remaining on a perpetual war footing”, he was also careful to speak to the deep anger and vexation of Americans over the four American hostages who have died in ISIL’s custody – at least three of them beheaded.
In a three-page letter to Congress in which he named US citizens James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig, and Kayla Jean Mueller, Obama said if ISIL is left unchecked, it “will pose a threat beyond the Middle East, including the United States homeland.” Therefore, he has struck a balance that would appeal to the majority of Americans.
As matters stand ISIL has overplayed its hand by the beheadings of its captives, and by the cruel and reprehensible burning alive of a Jordanian fighter pilot. While these beheadings, and the burning, were shocking enough to be successful in drawing worldwide attention to ISIL, they were equally successful in creating deep revulsion and disgust at ISIL’s barbaric tactics.
No well-thinking person – anywhere in the world – supports such behaviour. Consequently, apart from hardline, militant jihadists, there are few people in the world who today would not wish to see ISIL not only “degraded” but “destroyed” to use the words with which President Obama described his objective.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at London University and former Caribbean diplomat)