On Wednesday, President Obama will address the nation to outline his long-delayed strategy to defeat the Islamic State. Here’s what we can reasonably predict about it: The president apparently believes we can defeat the group without ground forces. His strategy will look similar to counterterrorism operations his administration has conducted over the past five years. And the president does not believe his strategy requires congressional authorization.
The president’s relying on his own authority makes the fight against the Islamic State different from the counterterrorism operations the military has engaged in over the past six years. Whether it waging war on al-Qaeda senior leadership, the Taliban, Pakistan’s Haqqani network, Somalia’s al-Shabaab, or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, President Obama has relied on the authority Congress provided the president shortly after the 9/11 attacks, to pursue those responsible and their affiliates. Given that the Islamic State is not affiliated with al-Qaeda — it famously rejected al-Qaeda on the grounds it’s not adequately committed to cause of jihad — it would be quite a stretch to hook the U.S. strikes against the Islamic State to the September 2001 authorization for use of military force (AUMF). So the president appears to believe he can do this without explicit congressional blessing — something he has previously opposed, and an approach likely to constrain the strategy.
But in almost every other respect, the administration seems to be ripping a page out of its al-Qaeda counterterrorism strategy. The nomenclature is the same: As with al-Qaeda, the objective is to “destroy and defeat” the Islamic State. As in Yemen and Somalia, this is primarily a military operation of terrorist “whack-a-mole” whereby our intelligence apparatus develops targeting packages and a combination of drones and fighter planes finish the target (though without sufficient forces on the ground, the intelligence will eventually dry up).
This strategy has had mixed success. The al-Qaeda franchises have been unable to successfully attack the homeland, though they have come frighteningly close, and continue to operate and plan attacks, as well as proliferate from the Maghreb to South Asia. But the Islamic State is not al-Qaeda. Its military capability is more robust, its brand of governance more cruel and lethal, its financial resources more diverse and sophisticated, and its sanctuary in Syria and Iraq more significant that any caliphate al-Qaeda hoped to establish.
Its sanctuary in Syria — not unlike al-Qaeda’s in Pakistan — gives the Islamic State freedom to train, plan operations, and strengthen its organization. The difference, of course, is that the U.S. has attacked al-Qaeda’s Pakistan sanctuary repeatedly. No such plans, we are told, are in the works against the Islamic State in Syria. This isn’t because the Islamic State poses less of a threat in Syria — the opposite is true. And from a military standpoint, striking the Islamic State in Syria would be the most effective way to accomplish our twin aims of degrade and defeat. Outsourcing the ground effort to the Iraqi military and moderate rebels on the ground in Syria is overly optimistic.
Putting aside the consideration that striking the Islamic State in Syria may strengthen Assad’s regime — a concern that many believe can be mitigated — opening up a Syria front against the group triggers a similar problem that the president faced the last time he considered strikes in that country: Can his administration attack there without authority from the Congress? When it came to fighting the Assad regime, the president decided to seek congressional authorization. Why would it be any different in the case of the Islamic State?
The president has decided that he will not seek authority from Congress at this time and will instead apparently rely on his inherent constitutional authority to protect and defend the country. Perhaps the president feels that his constitutional authority, combined with Iraq’s invitation to carry out strikes within its territory and a growing international coalition backing the operations, provides him with enough domestic and international legal authority to continue the strikes. But this legal framework is likely limited to Iraq’s borders, widening the gap between our objective to degrade and defeat the Islamic State and our strategy to do so.
The Syria front in the fight against the Islamic State sharpens the urgency of the question the Congress will have to face when it returns this week: Will it address the legal authority for the fight against the Islamic State? Of course, with midterm elections around the corner, Congress will likely be more than willing to avoid a contentious debate and a war vote that they’ll have to defend back home.
But taking the politically safe approach will come at a cost. Institutionally it will further degrade Congress’s constitutional role in matters of armed conflict. Perhaps more worrisome, avoiding a debate over the legal authority to fight the Islamic State means that Congress will be complicit in backing a strategy unable to achieve its objectives. Our military deserves a strategy designed to defeat the Islamic State and our nation’s security demands it. Congress should endeavor to make sure that Wednesday’s speech is not the final word on our strategy against the Islamic State.
— Roger I. Zakheim is an attorney at Covington & Burling LLP and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was deputy staff director and general counsel on the House Armed Services Committee from 2011 to 2013. You can follow him on twitter @Rogerreuv.