On the topic of authorizing the use of military force against the Islamic State, the state of play between Congress and President Barack Obama is reminiscent of some famous cartoon humor from a century ago.
The premise of “Alphonse and Gaston,” a comic strip that ran in the old New York Journal for a decade starting in 1901, was that the title characters were essentially paralyzed by their devotion to an extreme and unnecessary form of deferential politeness. Neither would ever do anything or travel anywhere because each insisted that the other precede him. For the past three months, congressional leaders in both parties have effectively been declaring the “After you, Alphonse!” half of the routine's regular punch line. That's essentially: We are happy, and in some cases eager if not insistent, to consider legislation permitting an active U.S. military engagement of one of the world’s most potent emerging terrorist threats. But we must insist the president write up and send over the language he’d like.
And every time, the White House has come back with its “No, you first, my dear Gaston!” part of the call and response. So, basically: The president is willing to obtain, and might even benefit from, the formal blessing of Congress before any intensification of the campaign to rein in the terrorist organization that calls itself the Islamic State, is also known as ISIS or ISIL. But he must insist that lawmakers begin by making clear what they would and would not support.
The routine’s most recent public reflection came in the State of the Union address, where Obama sounded like he was about to make headline-worthy news on the subject. After describing the more than 1,800 U.S. airstrikes over Iraq and Syria since August, the centerpiece of a multinational effort, as having succeeded in “stopping ISIL’s advance,” he declared: “I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.”
And then — no specifics whatsoever. He immediately turned to a discussion of Russia and Ukraine. And the disappointment, especially from his would-be allies in both parties, was unmistakable.
“Once again, he’s calling the Congress to take action without one sentence, one proposal from him as to what he wants,” lamented Rep. Michael R. Turner of Ohio, a senior Republican on House Armed Services.
“It shouldn’t be for the Congress to start with the drafting. It should be a proposal submitted by the commander in chief,” offered Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, an influential Republican on Senate Armed Services. “I want to know: What is his plan for success?”
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Foreign Relations Committee member and finalist to become Obama’s running mate back in 2008, said , “five months of war has been far too long to make our service members and their families wait for a political consensus” and “Congress as a whole will be better prepared to act with specific guidance from the administration.”
It is crystal clear Obama and Congress share more than a case of debilitating good manners. Each side has reason to fear the political consequences of making the opening move.
One need not be a national-class politician to realize — after almost 14 years in which wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the embodiments of U.S. foreign policy — the American electorate has become wary of another potentially costly, bloody and lengthy military entanglement with a mysterious enemy in a confounding region. But also, one doesn’t need to be a top-flight general to realize each limitation on a military campaign reduces the odds of clear victory.
And so it’s easy to understand why senators and House members (especially those looking with trepidation toward 2016) would be tempted not only to set a modest objective for the engagement but also to put clear limits on its duration, geographic range and use of combat ground forces. And it’s equally easy to see how a commander in chief (even one who’s won his last election) would be worried about being rebuffed or even conscribed after requesting unencumbered authority to take on the latest scourge of violent extremism.
On Wednesday, Speaker John A. Boehner declared himself confident Obama would eventually forward the specifics of his request, which he reiterated would be the starting point for scheduling the House’s debate. But he conceded to reporters that he had no new sense of the timing. And at their news conference to discuss the State of the Union speech, the leaders of the House Democratic Caucus, Chairman Xavier Becerra of California and his deputy Joseph Crowley of New York, reiterated that their party troops would not commit to support the president’s plan before hearing what it is.
Off camera, senior administration officials say a convoluted meeting in the middle may be in the offing. Obama will send the Hill so-called AUMF language proposing some limits on the scope of a campaign against ISIL, but only after backchannel consultation with House and Senate leaders to understand just how much military assertiveness lawmakers are ready to permit.
If the president plays it right and asks for just the sort of authorization most lawmakers (and particularly their more hawkish Republican majorities) want to grant, then Alphonse and Gaston will be on the move toward witnessing a legislative rarity: A lame-duck president of one party securing an important achievement, mainly by collaborating with the people from the other party who control Congress.
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