The Republican Congress is expected to take up an authorization bill for the war against ISIS even though the U.S. bombing and ground-escalation campaign has been underway for months.
The specter of the Islamic State has silenced congressional criticism and marginalized anti-war voices on the outside. The looming question is whether an open-ended authorization will extend the war on terror for years to come.
The most critical issues are these:
First, whether an authorization will include a narrow or a broad definition of the "enemy. Will it be ISIS in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS and associated groups? The broader definition, similar to "al-Qaeda and associated groups" in the 2002 authorization, will allow U.S. military action in any region where Islamic State loyalists raise a flag, like northern Egypt. Even the narrower definition is ambiguous, since the "Islamic State" is a category based on shifting loyalties among battlefield factions. A new authorization for a global war on terrorism therefore may be in the making.
Second, whether the president's prohibition on US ground troops will prevent another Americanized war. Obama already has sent hundreds of advisers and at least 1,500 new U.S. ground troops. All reports indicate that Baghdad's armed forces are incapable of fighting on their own, even with American bombing, with the exception of some Kurdish units and sectarian Shiite militias. Obama's military advisers and Republican senators are urging the deployment of ground troops.
Third, whether the authorization will 18 months before another Congressional debate or extend three or four years, into the next presidency. Secretary Kerry and Rep. Adam Schiff both are proposing a three-year extension, which would contain serious congressional debate until 2017. That would continue the war as one carried out by the executive branch and CIA except for annual debates on appropriations.
Fourth, since the president himself says there is "no military solution" to the conflict, a diplomatic solution should be the stated goal of the authorization, involving talks with all parties including Iran.
Fifth, whether the authorization will include mandatory independent reports on metrics of progress, casualties (including civilian casualties) and costs in U.S. tax dollars. History indicates that such reports are useful if done by an independent inspector general with specialists in budgeting and wartime civilian casualties.
The most important test will be whether a majority votes to block U.S. ground troops or whether the gates of hell will be left open.
Rep. Barbara Lee is attempting to inject limiting amendments and non-military alternatives into the floor debate. On her left, many peace advocates want a vote opposing the use of U.S. military force altogether. On her right are the McCains and Grahams, who blame Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops in the first place. The unknowns include presidential aspirants of both parties.
Lee has written that her Dec. 16 bill intends to "ensure that the U.S. pursues a comprehensive diplomatic, political, economic, and regionally-led strategy to degrade and dismantle ISIL, including working through the U.N. The bill would also repeal the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force (AUMF) to ensure that they are not relied on for authority in lieu of an ISIL-specific AUMF passed by Congress. Lastly, the bill would require a report from the Administration on its comprehensive strategy to degrade and dismantle ISIL and information on human rights vetting for partner elements the U.S. is supporting in Iraq and Syria."
According to Lee's legislative director, Diala Jadallah, "The underlying point is to ensure that the non-military solutions to the crisis in Iraq and Syria are included in any debate on the war. Right now, no one is talking about that, and all other legislative proposals are simply putting limits on a possible AUMF rather than trying to end the war through diplomatic, humanitarian, and political means. We are not prescribing a (new) AUMF."
The congressional vote also will define a core peace bloc willing to stand firm during a moment when the winds of escalation are blowing.