WASHINGTON -- As the debate in Congress over whether to authorize the ongoing war against the Islamic State drags on, one lawmaker is pushing for a more immediate vote, focused solely on banning large-scale deployments of U.S. ground troops to Iraq and Syria.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) cited the 2016 presidential elections as a race against the clock for those concerned about recommitting American ground troops abroad.
“President Obama is only in office for the next year and a half. And as we sit here today, Jeb Bush is launching a candidacy with Paul Wolfowitz as one of his primary foreign policy advisors,” he said, referring to one of the chief architects of the 2003 Iraq War under former President George W. Bush.
“There’s nothing about the last 15 years in Iraq that’s an advertisement for the large-scale deployment of ground troops,” said Murphy.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that 100,000 troops would be able to provide a settling force for the region [today] so long as they stay. But unless you are supporting a 20- or 30-year commitment of U.S. ground forces, we have to find another way to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL,” he continued, using the Obama administration’s preferred term for the Islamic State.
Last week, Murphy filed an amendment to the must-pass defense authorization bill that would prohibit the use of funds for ground troops in the fight against the Islamic State, with a handful of exceptions. He is joined by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) -- and, most recently, Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the sole Republican co-sponsor.
President Barack Obama has resisted a large presence of American troops, but continues to use the 2001 authorization for the use of military force -- which has no restrictions on ground troops -- as the legal basis for the current war.
“Many of the Republican presidential candidates have not disguised the fact that they would be potentially supportive of putting back into the Middle East large-scale American combat troops,” Murphy said. “I think that would be a policy disaster.”
If passed, Murphy’s amendment would allow ground troops to be sent to Iraq and Syria as advisors, as Obama has done on a gradually increasing basis over the past ten months. Last week, the president announced plans to send an additional 450 non-combat troops to Iraq, bringing the total to about 3,500. Murphy's amendment would also allow American troops to participate in intelligence collection, operational planning and rescue missions.
The amendment’s definition of allowable ground troops is open to interpretation, as Murphy himself admitted. It does, however, contain restrictions that go beyond the most recent proposal for an Islamic State-specific AUMF.
The new AUMF proposal, drafted by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), was the first major effort to come up with language that both parties could support since Congress declined to act on the Obama administration’s suggested authorization in February.
While recognizing the difficulties in getting Republican support for any move to limit the president’s war-fighting abilities, Murphy said the Kaine-Flake language on ground troops is too imprecise. “It states in its purpose that the United States will not be engaged in large-scale combat operations, but doesn’t actually have a practical limitation,” he said Monday. “I’m of a view that we need an operative prohibition on ground troops in an AUMF, and I don’t see that right now.”
If he doesn't get a vote on the ground troops restriction in the defense authorization bill, Murphy plans to bring up his amendment on future pieces of legislation, including the defense appropriations bill and the new war authorization, if it ever comes to a vote.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has been hesitant to bring a new war authorization up for debate in the Senate, claiming it would be worse for Congress to be seen as divided on the war effort than for Congress to simply do nothing. “It’s not going to affect an iota of activities on the ground,” Corker said in the past, calling the war authorization an “intellectual exercise.” The chairman has, however, agreed to hold closed-door committee meetings on the AUMF this week.
On Monday, Murphy dismissed concerns of presenting a divided front in the war effort as a “short-term consequence” of a contentious war authorization debate. “But I think there are grave consequences with respect to the balance of power between the executive and the legislative branches if we don’t pass an AUMF,” he said. “I’m not sure where the president’s authority ends if we don’t check it.”