ANALYSIS 13th, 2015


Obama Asks for Authorization to Use Force in the Middle East

After coming under fire from both Democrats and Republicans for conducting an unauthorized war against ISIS, Obama finally asked Congress for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS.  Up to now, the Obama administration has conducted its reluctant and late-developing fight against ISIS under the auspice of the 2002 AUMF that allowed George W. Bush to invade and then occupy Iraq. Technically, that AUMF could continue in force, but Democrats have long wanted to scrap it — especially between June 2011 and August 2014, when Barack Obama kept insisting that he’d ended the war in Iraq. Obama himself has demanded a more tailored AUMF but has been reluctant to draft it, preferring to pass the political risk to the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue.

With Republicans in control on Capitol Hill, though, Obama finally had no choice but to offer his own proposal for the AUMF. The White House finally released it this week and it quickly came under fire from both sides of the aisle.

Knowing that, top White House and State Department officials have been paving the way by briefing lawmakers and Congressional staffers about their proposed legislation.

Obama sent Congress a proposed three-page authorization for military force.  His proposed AUMF would limit authorization to three years, with no restriction where U.S. forces could pursue the threat.  His proposal bans “enduring offensive combat operations,” an ambiguous term intended as compromise between lawmakers who want authority for ground troops and those who don’t.

The use of the term “enduring” may be a slap at Bush and his prosecution of the war. Before becoming President himself, Obama repeatedly criticized Congress for giving the executive a blank check to wage war in Iraq with the AUMF.  Bush also called the war in Afghanistan, which operates under a separate AUMF that will not be affected by this proposal, “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

Obama’s AUMF for the fight against ISIS would restrict the use of ground troops through a prohibition on “enduring offensive ground operations,” but provide several exemptions. First, all existing ground troops, including the 3,000 U.S. military personnel now on the ground in Iraq, would be explicitly excluded from the restrictions. After that, the president would be allowed to deploy new military personnel in several specific roles: advisers, special operations forces, Joint Terminal Attack Controllers to assist U.S. air strikes and Combat Search and Rescue personnel.

These restrictions seem to merely mirror what the US is doing now, under the old AUMF. And, that being the case, not enough to stop ISIS’ expansion, let alone “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.  What’s more, the White House obviously knows this. It has almost two years to achieve its stated goals against ISIS. If the strategies they’re employing now could succeed, they wouldn’t need a new AUMF under which to implement them.

The proposed AUMF came under fire from the Speaker of the House John Boehner.  “ISIL is at war with our country and our allies,” reads Boehner’s statement. “If we are going to defeat this enemy, we need a comprehensive military strategy and a robust authorization, not one that limits our options.”

“Any authorization for the use of military force must give our military commanders the flexibility and authorities they need to succeed and protect our people. While I believe an AUMF against ISIL is important, I have concerns that the president’s request does not meet this standard. Now we will begin hearings and rigorous oversight so lawmakers and the public can provide their input. Ultimately, our objective is to show the world that the United States is resolute.”

The Speaker also made it clear that Congress would make its own changes, if it was to pass.  “If we’re going to authorize use of military force, the president should have all the tools necessary to win the fight that we’re in,” Boehner told the National Journal. “I’m not sure that the strategy that been outlined will accomplish the mission that the president wants to accomplish.”

“The president’s point is that he wants to dismantle and destroy ISIS. I haven’t seen a strategy yet that I think will accomplish that,” he added.

In addition, The White House hasn’t signaled that this AUMF will be more rigorous or aggressive than the current approval.  A House GOP leadership aide told the national Journal, “Based on a briefing last night, the White House is using a much more restrictive interpretation of ‘enduring offensive operations’ than expected, and that is potentially a major problem.”

The problems weren’t only on the Republican side of the aisle.  Democratic Representative Adam Schiff said Obama’s proposal contained too few controls. He said a new authorization should place more specific limits on the use of ground troops and expressed concerns the plan did not set geographic limits.

Democrats are concerned that Obama’s resolution is vague and fear it could bog the country down in another lengthy ground war. The criticism centers on language in the proposed resolution that prohibits “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”

“There’s a lot of concern about what that phrase means,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said.  “I don’t think that’s an established [term]. It sounds pretty open-ended to me.”

The Politics of the AUMF

Although the presidential election is still over a year and a half away, the proposed AUMF has political ramifications.  If passed in its current form, Obama’s AUMF could effectively constrain the next president from waging a ground war against the Islamic State group until at least 2018.

Interestingly enough, this move indicates that Obama may discount Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning in 2016 since it keeps the current, ineffective strategy in place for nearly a year after Obama leaves office.  Clearly the White House has seen the weakness in Hillary’s polling against many of the GOP potential candidates.

Potential GOP presidential candidates quickly spoke about the proposed AUMF.  They saw the proposal as both weak and a limitation on the potential actions of a future president – hopefully them.  They also criticized the lack of information on how the administration would actually execute the war in order to win.

In speaking at a Washington think tank – the Center for Security Policy – probable Republican candidate Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said, “I hope it will force this administration to clearly articulate their objectives and their specific plan to accomplish that objective.  That the process of going to Congress and seeking authorization leads to the natural question: authorization to do what? What do you intend to do and how do you intend to do it?”  He also noted that Obama has not shown a, “seriousness of purpose.”

Senator Cruz also called for the immediate arming of the Kurds.  But, he warned that lawmakers should be wary of handing the commander in chief a “blanket authorization” to wage war.

And, in another probable political play, Cruz also used the whole issue of ISIS to take shots at Clinton and Kerry, who are both potential Democratic presidential candidates.  During the speech, he referred to the “Obama-Kerry-Clinton” foreign policy.

That sentiment wasn’t expressed across the GOP spectrum.  Senator Graham (R-NC) wants Congress to give Obama unequivocal authority to fight ISIS militants.  Graham is a close friend and political ally of Senator McCain (R-AZ) who has pushed for a greater American involvement in fighting ISIS.

Graham, who also serves in the Air Force Reserve, used the issue to differentiate his experience with the other potential candidates.  He said, “I think it’s going to show divisions between those who understand what it takes to contain the threat and defeat the threat versus those who are just stumbling around trying to find a political sweet spot.”

This is clearly seen as an opening for Graham by his backers.  In trying to frame the 2016 election as a foreign policy election, Senator McCain said, “As things get worse, Lindsey Graham will gain more prominence.”

This stance By Graham was a direct challenge to Republican candidates who want the US to step away from the conflict in the region.  Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) says he’s “not eager” to send troops back to the Middle East, and he’s demanding that Congress set a one-year timeline for a war authorization to expire.

This clearly falls in line with Paul’s attempt to attract new voters to the GOP.   He is aiming for younger and war-weary primary voters who are leaning Democratic now.  “I’m not for declaring a worldwide war where I can send troops anywhere anytime…I’m not for sending 100,000 troops back to the Middle East.”

Another probable GOP presidential candidate, Senator Rubio of Florida is open to sending ground troops into the region, “if that’s what it takes to win.”  Rubio is more attuned to the Graham side of the GOP.  However, that may not be enough in 2016.   When McCain was asked what set Graham apart from Rubio, McCain responded, “Vast experience.”

The AUMF may also be an issue in the Democratic 2016 presidential campaign.  Senator Warren (D-MA) has positioned herself away from the Obama Administration and her potential rival Hillary Clinton.  She was a cosponsor for a resolution introduced last month to repeal the Iraq authorization of military force.

In speaking about the previous bill to repeal the post 9-11 AUMF, Senator Warren said, “This bill is a reminder that Congressional authorization for the use of force should be limited and that military action is always a last resort.”

This poses a serious problem for Hillary Clinton as the Democratic base is opposed to the war and as Secretary of State; she is closely tied to Obama’s past policies.  In fact, this may be reflected in polls this week that show Warren ahead of Clinton in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, despite Warren’s insistence that she has no interest in running for president and wants to focus on her senate duties.

Another potential Democratic candidate, Senator Sanders (D-VT) is dodging the issue, although he voted against the AUMF in 2002.  Asked at a talk at the Brookings Institution about the proposed Obama AUMF, he said, “There are some colleagues in the Congress who really have a mind for endless war.  I do not want to see an endless war in the Middle East.”  However, he refused to say whether he supported Obama’s AUMF proposal.

This reflects poorly on the chances of the AUMF being authorized quickly.  The current AUMF is clearly giving Obama the authority to conduct the war at the current level.  So, in that regard, many Republicans see the new proposal merely as a way to tie the ISIS war to the GOP rather than making it Obama’s war.  Should the war against ISIS go poorly, any Republican presidential candidate who voted for it will have to answer for any failure.

The proposed AUMF also hurts the GOP senators considering a presidential run because several strong Republican candidates are governors.  This gives the governors – especially Bush and Walker – the opportunity to criticize the AUMF proposal, but not be held accountable.

The same holds for any Democrats thinking about voting for the Obama AUMF.  The Democratic base is clearly against conducting a war in the Middle East, and voting for the proposal will not win many votes.

In the end, few will be eager for a vote.  Obama wants the AUMF merely for political cover for the next two years and its ability to tie the next president for the first year of their first term.  Congressional Republicans see the proposal as not much different than what is currently authorized and, therefore, not particularly necessary.

On the political side, the new AUMF is political poison.  Republican presidential candidates will be loath to back it because their political future will depend entirely on how well Obama prosecutes the war.  If ISIS prevails, they will be blamed by GOP candidates who either voted against it or governors who were able to avoid the issue.

Democrats will also avoid the issue as their road to the Democratic nomination will require that they placate the anti-war Democratic base.  The only way that an affirmative vote would help is if Obama manages to win the war in the next six months or so – very unlikely – or if they think a Republican candidate will win the presidency in 2016.

So, while an AUMF may pass the Congress, don’t expect it to pass quickly.  Nor should you expect it to pass intact.  This will be a political hot potato that everyone will try to avoid.



The Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Understanding Key Issues

By James Phillips

Heritage Foundation

February 10, 2015

Issue Brief #4343

The Obama Administration has bent over backward in an effort to secure a nuclear agreement with Iran. In principle, it has accepted Iran’s illicit uranium enrichment activities, the heavy-water reactor at Arak that could become a plutonium bomb factory, and Iran’s continued stonewalling of the investigation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). These concessions, which contravene multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, have alarmed a bipartisan congressional coalition, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other U.S. allies threatened by Iran’s aggressive foreign policy.  The Obama Administration naively believes that carrots in the form of sanctions relief are sufficient inducements for Tehran to accept meaningful limitations on its nuclear program. Moreover, it has succumbed to wishful thinking about the possibility of strategic cooperation with Iran against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Listed below are publications by Heritage Foundation staff that shed light on these and other Iran-related issues.

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Is Big Brother Here for Good?

By Patrick G. Eddington

Cato Institute

February 9, 2015

Last week, President Obama revealed his proposed “reforms” to the intelligence community’s electronic surveillance practices. Ignoring the pleas of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board and privacy and civil liberties groups to end the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records, the president has chosen to keep the program in a lightly modified form.  It is a tribute to the power of the national security state that Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA abuse have not resulted in any real reduction in NSA’s powers and that no consequences have befallen those responsible for the abuses.  Those responsible for authorizing and running these programs—including two presidents, their respective NSA directors, attorneys general and a slew of other lower-ranking officials—have successfully constructed a system of mass surveillance that operates in an accountability-free zone politically and is manifestly ineffective. But the true threat these programs pose is to the very experiment that is America—a country created in response to the very kinds of warrantless searches embodied in these and other post-9/11 government activities.

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Religious Radicalism after the Arab Uprisings

By Jon B. Alterman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

February 5, 2015


The Arab uprisings of 2011 created unexpected opportunities for religious radicals. Although many inside and outside the region initially saw the uprisings as liberal triumphs, illiberal forces have benefitted disproportionately. In Tunisia, formally marginalized salafi-jihadi groups appealed for mainstream support, and in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood triumphed in elections. Even in Saudi Arabia, not known for either lively politics or for political entrepreneurship, a surprising array of forces praised the rise of “Islamic democracy” under a Muslim Brotherhood banner.  Yet, at the same time, the Arab Spring reinforced regional governments’ advantages. The chaos engulfing parts of the region has convinced some citizens that they were better off with the governments they had, and many governments successfully employed old and new tools of repression to reinforce the status quo.

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Libya’s War-Weary Make Peace?

By Frederic Wehrey

Carnegie Endowment

February 2, 2015

In war-torn Libya, the future path toward peace may lie not in the meeting halls of United Nations–sponsored talks but in a sprawling dairy factory in the western port city of Misrata. Remarkably, even after months of fighting, it is still churning out delicious fruit yogurt and macchiato ice cream.  The al-Naseem dairy plant is Libya’s largest private enterprise—and one of the few functioning businesses in a country that has been battered by civil war since May of last year. When I toured the factory’s well-groomed grounds in January, al-Naseem’s owner told me he had suffered a 40 percent revenue loss since the start of the conflict. He was tired of fighting and ready for dialogue.

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Drift And Delusion At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
By Stephen Blank

American Foreign Policy Council
January 30, 2015
American Spectator

Listening to the President’s State of the Union address last week, you might have come away convinced that, at least in the field of foreign policy, everything is coming up roses. Yet a look at the real world provides a jarring contrast to the complacency and unrealism of that speech – and of the Obama administration’s policies writ large.  In the Middle East, we aren’t winning against the Islamic State terrorist group, as the president claimed. We may have killed many thousands of its fighters and much of its leadership, but new groups inspired by the movement are mushrooming daily in West and North Africa, the North Caucasus, and likely Afghanistan and Central Asia as well. Our four-year-long policy ineptitude toward Syria has ensured a quagmire in that country, and virtually guaranteed that whoever ultimately prevails in Syria will be radical and anti-American in outlook. And toward Iran, which just helped orchestrate the overthrow of the pro-Western government of Yemen, the Administration has showed unprecedented deference, running interference for the Islamic Republic in Congress to head off the prospect of new sanctions. Moreover, we have managed to convince Israel that we are willing to sell out its interests and security as part of our negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

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Jordan, ISIS, #WeAreAllMuadh

By Tally Helfont

Foreign Policy Research Institute

February 2015

Jordan’s fight with the Islamic State, to employ an apt colloquialism, just got real. On February 4, a gruesome video was released by the Islamic State (IS) showing Jordanian pilot Lt. Muadh al-Kasasbeh (26), who had been held by IS since December 24th after his F-16 crashed in Syria, being burned alive in a cage. Ripples have been felt throughout the region since his capture, only to grow into waves of discontent following the release of this disturbing video.  At the highest echelons of the Kingdom, King Abdullah II called al-Kasasbeh’s murder “cowardly” and signaled during his meeting with U.S. senators that the gloves were off and retaliation was imminent. For the King, it was not just about al-Kasasbeh. He said, “We are waging this war to protect our faith, our values and human principles and our war for their sake will be relentless and will hit them in their own ground.” Army spokesman General Mamduh al-Amiri struck a similar cord, saying “The blood of the martyr will not have been shed in vain and… vengeance will be proportional to this catastrophe that has struck all Jordanians.” Likewise, government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani said “We are talking about a collaborative effort between coalition members to intensify efforts to stop extremism and terrorism to undermine, degrade and eventually finish Daesh,” using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

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The Islamic State’s Expansion in Libya 

By Andrew Engel

Washington Institute

February 11, 2015

PolicyWatch 2371

Earlier this month, Aref Ali Nayed — Libya’s ambassador to the UAE and former lead coordinator of the Libya Stabilization Team — visited Washington to address the “Islamic State”/ISIS presence in his country. In his view, the group is rapidly expanding and may threaten Europe, though the U.S. government assessment is less certain — some American intelligence officials believe Nayed may be overstating his case, but U.S. ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones asked in a February 4 tweet whether “a divided Libya” can withstand ISIS. Indeed, the group has dramatically increased its physical and media presence in Libya since the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC) of Darnah pledged allegiance to it last October, after which ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi recognized the Libyan “provinces” of Barqa (Cyrenaica), Tripolitania, and Fezzan as belonging to his self-styled “caliphate.” At the same time, the group’s supporters online have been aggressively recruiting while making the case for ISIS expansion in Libya and a new strategy in North Africa.

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Crime and Punishment in Jordan 

By David Schenker

Washington Institute

February 6, 2015

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s horrific video of operatives burning alive the captured Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh shocked the world. King Abdullah, who was visiting Washington when the video was released, vowed to avenge Kasasbeh’s death and promptly returned to Jordan. Even before he landed, two prominent al Qaeda prisoners with ties to ISIS on death row in the kingdom were hanged.  Jordanians greeted Abdullah’s arrival — and the news of the two executions — with jubilation. But the kingdom’s next moves against ISIS remain unclear. Jordanians want revenge, yet until now the kingdom’s involvement in the U.S.-led air campaign against the terrorist group has been deeply unpopular at home. Indeed, until Kasasbeh’s death, the trending Twitter hashtag in Jordan was #ThisIsNotOurWar.  If the past is precedent, Kasasbeh’s death at the hands of ISIS could signal a change — at least temporarily — in Jordanian popular attitudes toward the war and presage a more robust role for the kingdom in military operations.

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Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor