President Obama said on Wednesday that he would seek specific authorization from Congress for the military campaign against the Islamic State, opening the door to a lengthy, potentially contentious debate over the nature and extent of American engagement in Iraq and Syria.
Mr. Obama’s announcement, at his post-election news conference, was not wholly unexpected. But it represented a significant shift from his earlier position that while he would welcome congressional backing, he had legal authority to take military action under existing statutes.
Administration officials said Mr. Obama still believed he had that authority, but with the elections over, he concluded that the time was right to petition Congress for more explicit authority.
“The world needs to know we are united behind this effort and that the men and women of our military deserve our clear and unified support,” Mr. Obama said, adding that he would begin a dialogue with congressional leaders when they come to the White House on Friday.
He also increased the pressure on Iran’s leaders ahead of a deadline this month to reach a nuclear deal, saying that the United States has now “presented to them a framework that would allow them to meet their peaceful energy needs,” without leaving Iran the ability to “break out and produce a nuclear weapon.”
The president suggested that he was now waiting for a political decision in Tehran about whether Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would accept that framework.
While Mr. Obama gave no specifics, he appeared to be referring to a plan under which Iran would ship much of its uranium stockpile to Russia, where it would be converted into fuel for the country’s single nuclear plant.
Iranian officials dismissed the report without fully denying it, but American officials have said they suspect a struggle is underway within the Iranian government on the wisdom of reaching an accord. “They have their own politics, and there’s a long tradition of mistrust between the two countries,” Mr. Obama said.
The president was guarded about the progress of the military operation against the Islamic State. He said it was too soon to say whether the United States and its allies were winning, noting that it would take a long time to upgrade Iraqi forces to the point where they could reclaim territory now held by the militants. He was even more circumspect about Syria.
“Our focus in Syria is not to solve the entire Syria situation, but rather to isolate the areas in which ISIL can operate,” he added, using an alternative name for the Islamic State.
That statement appeared somewhat at odds with a recent memo sent to the White House by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in which he criticized the administration’s Syria policy for failing to connect the campaign against the Islamic State to the broader struggle against President Bashar al-Assad.
Mr. Hagel wrote that unless the United States clarified its intentions against the Assad regime, it would fail to enlist allies like Turkey and France for the battle against the Islamic State in Syria, since those countries are intent on ousting Mr. Assad. Other officials said that in internal debates, Mr. Hagel has not advocated taking a strong line against Mr. Assad, and in fact has echoed the Pentagon’s resistance to going to war with the Syrian government.
That will be one of the issues likely to come up in a congressional debate over authorization. Before the election, Congress passed limited authorization to pay for the training and equipping of Syrian rebels. Now the White House is seeking an authorization to use military force that would be tailored to a prolonged fight against ISIS.
Until now, the White House had justified its airstrikes in Iraq and Syria under two existing laws: a 2001 authorization passed after the 9/11 attacks, which Mr. Obama has invoked to carry out drone and missile strikes against suspected terrorists in Yemen and Somalia, and a 2002 authorization sought by President George W. Bush for the Iraq war.
“The idea is to right-size and update whatever authorization Congress provides to suit the current fight rather than previous fights,” Mr. Obama said. “We now have a different type of enemy.”
Lawmakers welcomed the announcement, even as they noted it would set off complicated political crosscurrents in both parties. Many lawmakers were privately relieved that the White House did not petition Congress before the midterm elections.
“This is an extended military campaign and it has nothing to do with the 9/11 authorization,” said Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont. “It is expensive, long term, and it’s not clear where it’s going. You’re going to see a complicated debate in Congress.”
Among the issues he predicted would come up would be the deployment of American ground forces, which Mr. Obama has ruled out but which Mr. Welch said would almost certainly be needed to root out the militants.
Still, he added: “In some ways, it will probably be a better debate. People will have more latitude to consider it on the merits than they would have before the election.”
In part because the battle with the Islamic State is likely to last beyond Mr. Obama’s presidency — and soak up resources he wanted to commit elsewhere — there is an increasing sense that the White House is more eager than ever to strike even an agreement in principle with Iran by the Nov. 24 deadline for the end of negotiations.
Mr. Obama seemed intent on answering critics who have said he wants a deal too much. “Whether we can actually get a deal done, we’re going to have to find out over the next three to four weeks,” he said, suggesting that the “framework” given to Iran was essentially an effort to determine the sincerity of the country’s insistence that it was simply looking for a reliable way to produce fuel for nuclear reactors.
-Courtesy of NY Times