Should The U.S. Declare War On ISIS?

Posted: Aug 22, 2014 7:00 PM

If there’s one thing that will generate bipartisan consensus on the Hill, it’s that the United States needs to get serious about confronting the Islamic State (ISIS) militarily. The National Journal recently posted a piece by James Kitfield, a senior fellow at Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, argued that it’s time the U.S. declares war on the Islamic State–and have a debate on the U.S. interests at stake:

Washington is overdue for a serious debate about what U.S. national interests are threatened by the Iraq crisis.

Most importantly, ISIS today represents a direct and growing threat to the United States. It has attracted an estimated 12,000 foreign fighters to its black banner flying over Syrian and Iraqi territory, including hundreds of Europeans and Americans who can travel freely with Western passports. It has a bigger sanctuary, far more money, and is more indiscriminately murderous than al-Qaida was on Sept. 10, 2001. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has assured anyone who will listen that he eventually intends to direct his jihad at the United States, telling the U.S. soldiers who released him from prison in 2009, "I'll see you in New York."

A congressional authorization targeting ISIS, however limited in time or geography, would go a long way toward clarifying for the American people this growing threat to their security. In a recent exclusive interview, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the outgoing director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told me that Islamic extremist groups that have adopted al-Qaida's nihilistic ideology are stronger and more threatening today than before 9/11.

Although, Kitfield knows the risks the Obama administration faces by weighing into this debate, especially since the president campaigned on getting our troops out of Iraq:

There are other authorities Obama could draw on to justify U.S. military action, but both are problematic. Congress's 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks has long been interpreted to allow military attacks against al-Qaida and "associated forces." It remains the justification for the administration's targeted-killing-by-drone program. But al-Qaida has famously disenfranchised ISIS over its penchant for wantonly slaughtering fellow Muslims, and the Obama administration has said it wants to reform and eventually repeal the 2001 AUMF.

Even more problematic is Congress' 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iraq. While still on the books, the 2002 AUMF is anathema for a president who ran for office touting his opposition to the Iraq War, and Congress's vote that enabled it. When the House of Representatives recently voted overwhelmingly to bar the administration from deploying military forces to Iraq for a "sustained combat role," the White House thus sought to pair that resolution with a full repeal of the 2002 AUMF.

Yet, as Dan noted earlier this week, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) announced their solidarity with ISIS. They’re now helping them how to avoid U.S. airstrikes and how to maximize their influence over the region. Even before this alliance was struck, NBC News Chief Pentagon Correspondent Jim Miklaszewski said earlier this month that the Pentagon was estimating that dealing with ISIS would be a 10 to-20 year challenge.

Over at Hot Air, Noah Rothman wrote that conservatives generally agree that we should go to war in Iraq and Syria, but not occupy them.

Rothman cited Krauthammer in his piece, noting that ISIS is overextended. They have about 15,000 men trying to maintain control of an area four times the size of Israel. We wouldn’t need 250,000 men, which is what we mobilized by March of 2003 to go into Iraq; a smaller force would be more than necessary to drive Islamic State forces out of Iraq. When it comes to Syria, Krauthammer admitted that it’s a situation that would require a different strategy, one that could our troops in harm’s way; it’s a totally different animal.

Yet, even if the case is made cogently; even if the both parties agree; there’s still the Reid issue. Mr. Reid isn’t too happy about a vote reauthorizing the use of force in Iraq since it’ll prove disastrous for Democrats in tight races (via the Hill):

Will the Senate hold a vote less than two months before the midterm elections to authorize military strikes in Iraq?

Democrats in both chambers have called for Congress to take action, but it’s a vote Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) almost certainly wants to avoid as he seeks to keep the upper chamber majority in his party’s hands.

Democratic strategists warn that voting on a use-of-force authorization before the election could prove disastrous to Democratic candidates in tough races.

Although, if there’s one senator who doesn’t want a ground war with ISIS, it’s Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who said, “I do not want to see us caught again in a ground war…I do believe there needs to be a heck of a lot of discussion in the Congress as to what our long-term plans are in Iraq and in the region.”

One biting irony in this whole mess is that the former Baath party officials and generals in Saddam’s army that we purged in 2003 are giving the Islamic State political credibility with locals–and are responsible for securing their victory in Mosul. Yet, these two groups “aren’t natural allies” (via Foreign Policy):

The group of ex-Hussein loyalists, known alternatively as the Naqshbandi Army or by the acronym JRTN -- the initials of its Arabic name -- helped the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, win some of its most important military victories, including its conquest of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. It has also given the terrorist army, which is composed largely of foreign fighters, a valuable dose of local political credibility in Iraq. JRTN, which was formed as a resistance group in 2006, is made up of former Baathist officials and retired military generals, and is led by the former vice president of Hussein's revolutionary council, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who was once one of the most-wanted men in the country during the U.S. occupation.

ISIS and JRTN aren't natural allies. The former wants to erase Iraq's current borders and establish a caliphate, while the latter has been a largely secular movement that seeks to regain the official power and influence it held before the U.S. invasion in 2003. But they are aligned in their opposition to, and hatred of, outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government. Each side wants him to go, and JRTN recognizes that ISIS stands the best chance of violently overthrowing the Iranian-backed regime in Baghdad.

Then again, the Wall Street Journal reported today that the Islamic State’s momentum was maintained due to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's decision to “go easy on them,” thinking they would “cannibalize” the rebel Free Syrian Army. That was a big mistake.

Right now, our State Department State Department wants to make something clear, “This is not about ISIL versus the United States.”  I don't think we're going to be able to play that game very long.