TIME Foreign Policy

Obama and Congress Play Hot Potato With War Powers in Syria

President Barack Obama delivers a statement from Martha's Vineyard, Mass. during his vacation on Aug. 20, 2014.
President Barack Obama delivers a statement from Martha's Vineyard, in Massachusetts, during his vacation on Aug. 20, 2014 Kevin Lamarque—Reuters

Few savor the idea of voting for military action with the midterm elections looming

White House photographer Pete Souza tweeted a photo of President Barack Obama and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough taking a meditative walk on the White House grounds Monday. It was a small reminder of the infamous walk the pair took nearly a year ago when Obama decided to go to Congress for permission to bomb Syria. That proposition turned out badly: congressional support cratered and Obama was left to scramble a diplomatic solution.

On a gorgeous Monday evening nearly a year later, the pair in their shirtsleeves could have been discussing almost the same dilemma: How does Obama continue to bomb Iraq and begin aerial strikes on Islamist militants in Syria without permission from Congress?

There are some in Congress who are calling on Obama to push through a War Powers Resolution. Article II of the Constitution grants the President the power to defend the country. But Article I gives only Congress the power to declare war. So, what in a post-war-on-terrorism era constitutes an actual war? In 1973, afraid of Vietnam mission creep, Congress passed the War Powers Act, which requires the President to consult Congress 60 days after engaging in hostilities. If you count bombing a foreign country as hostile — as the U.S. did against militants in northern Iraq on Aug. 7 — then the 60 days expires Oct. 7.

Theoretically, if Congress cares about not further weakening its oversight of the President’s ability to bomb whatever country he pleases, lawmakers will move to pass a War Powers Resolution in the next month. Presidents, including Obama, have argued that the War Powers Act is unconstitutional. But a turf fight over who gets to go to war is the last thing on Congress’ mind weeks before the midterm elections.

“Congress does not have the political will to approve a War Powers Resolution when the American people have very little appetite for war,” said Ron Bonjean, a former senior Republican congressional aide. “Getting the approval of Congress before the November elections to bomb ISIS targets in Iraq would likely require an attack on American soil or a very imminent threat of danger. Members of Congress want to secure their own re-elections and this type of vote could be the defining factor in several tight Senate races across the country.”

Thus far, the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees in the House and Senate, which would have jurisdiction over a War Powers Resolution, have been waiting to hear what Obama wants to do. Congress has a spotty history of authorizing hostilities under this President. The House only succeeded on its third try in passing a tepid authorization for action in Libya — more than three months after U.S. involvement in Libya actually began. On Syria, both chambers balked at authorizing hostilities after Obama asked for support in the wake Syrian strongman Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. When congressional support disappeared, Obama was forced to make a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to rid Syria of chemical weapons, rather than using force against Assad.

Few Republicans, a Senate Republican aide told TIME, want to vote to support the President, especially in election season. If Obama were to ask for money for his actions — a back-door way of showing congressional support for military action without having to outright condone it — that vote would be easier as it would be a vote for the troops, the aide said.

“The GOP must fear losing what feels like big momentum right now with the chance that the President will get a rally around the flag effect,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t sense that, through the midterm prism, the Democrats’ concern would be as great.”

Still, voting to expand hostilities in Iraq isn’t the most popular thing with Democrats either: Obama got elected in part because of his early and strong opposition to the war in Iraq — a “clean break from the failed policies and politics of the past,” as then candidate Obama called it in a March 2008 speech. It’s ironic that before his last midterm-election fight, he finds himself struggling to persuade Congress to return to a country he prided himself on leaving.

The most likely path here is that Obama will continue to do what he’s been doing, and probably expand attacks into Syria, using the Article II justification. As the White House has argued, he’s protecting Americans in Erbil, the Kurdish capital in northern Iraq. By that measure, wherever America has an embassy, or citizens in peril, Presidents in the future will now have the precedent to engage in hostilities to protect them.

Last year, as Obama paced the grounds with McDonough, the constitutional-law Professor in Chief damned the politics and worried about going beyond previous precedent. A year later, and he’ll have no choice but to bow to the realpolitik of midterm elections.

TIME Foreign Policy

Mother of American Held by ISIS Pleads for His Release

Shirley Sotloff Michael Sotloff ISIS
Shirley Sotloff, mother of American journalist Steven Sotloff who is being held by ISIS, pleads with her son's captors to release him in this undated video released on Aug. 27, 2014 Al Arabiya

"I ask you to please release my child"

The mother of an American journalist held hostage by Islamist militants issued an emotional plea for her son’s release Wednesday.

In a video broadcast on al-Arabiya TV network, Shirley Sotloff directly addresses Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). She asks him to free her son Steven Sotloff after a year in captivity.

“Steven is a journalist who traveled to the Middle East to cover the suffering of Muslims at the hands of tyrants,” Shirley Sotloff says, adding that her son has no influence over U.S. government policy and should not be held accountable for its actions. “He is an honorable man and has always tried to help the weak.

“I ask you to please release my child,” she says, citing Muslim teachings on mercy.

Steven Sotloff is a freelance journalist who has written in the past for TIME and other outlets, and has been missing since August 2013. His family initially kept word of his disappearance secret, but Sotloff was pictured in a video showing the execution of American journalist James Foley released by ISIS last week.

President Barack Obama said Tuesday that the U.S. would not rest until justice had been carried out against Foley’s killers. “Our message to anyone who harms our people is simple,” Obama told a veterans group in Charlotte, N.C. “America does not forget. Our reach is long. We are patient. Justice will be done.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday that “the thoughts and prayers of everyone here in the White House and the Obama Administration are with the Sotloff family.” Earnest said he wasn’t sure if Obama has seen Shirley Sotloff’s video, but that “members of this Administration have been in contact with the Sotloff family on a regular basis.”

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Warns of Extended Campaign Against ISIS

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks about veterans issues at the American Legion’s 96th National Convention at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Charles Dharapak—AP

The President makes his first public comments on the U.S. military campaign in Iraq since returning from vacation

President Barack Obama pledged Tuesday that the United States would not rest until it brought to justice the killer of American journalist James Foley at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

“Rooting out a cancer like [ISIS] won’t be easy and it won’t be quick,” Obama told an audience of veterans and their families at the American Legion National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. a week after the extremist group released a video showing the graphic execution of Foley by an ISIS fighter. These were Obama’s first public comments on the conflict since returning from vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.

“Our message to anyone who harms our people is simple. America does not forget, our reach is long, we are patient, justice will be done,” Obama said, referencing Foley’s killing. “We have proved time and time again we will do what’s necessary to capture those who harm Americans to go after those who harm Americans. And we’ll continue to take direct action where needed to protect our people and to defend our homeland.”

As he weighs expanding the fight against ISIS into Syria, Obama warned that “history teaches us of the dangers of overreaching and spreading ourselves too thin and trying to go it alone without international support, or rushing into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that Obama has yet to decide whether to authorize the expansion of the weeks-long American air campaign in Iraq against the group.

Obama said that the strikes against ISIS have been limited to protecting U.S. forces and diplomats in Iraq, reaffirming that U.S. troops would not be sent back on the ground beyond an advisory capacity.

“Let me say it again: American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq,” he said. “We’ll not allow the United States to be dragged back into another ground war in Iraq because, ultimately, it is up to the Iraqis to bridge their differences and secure themselves.”

TIME Foreign Policy

U.S. Weighs Military Action Against ISIS in Syria

"If you come after Americans, we’re going to come after you wherever you are"

The U.S. is open to the possibility of military action against Islamist militants in Syria, a top Obama Administration official said Friday, warning that the U.S. will “do what is necessary to protect Americans.”

“We’ve made very clear time and again that if you come after Americans, we’re going to come after you wherever you are,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters. “And that’s what’s going to guide our planning in the days to come.”

President Barack Obama has resisted pressure from both outside and inside his Administration to take a more muscular approach in Syria, where a bloody civil war has claimed 191,000 lives in recent years, according to a new U.N. estimate Friday. But the emergence of the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which released a graphic video on Tuesday depicting the beheading of American journalist James Foley, has raised the stakes — and has seemingly made American officials, already engaged in targeted military action in Iraq, more willing to consider doing so on the other side of the border.

General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that any strategy against ISIS would have to include action against militants in Syria, and Rhodes didn’t disagree with that assertion Friday.

“Well, we certainly agree that any strategy to deal with the [ISIS] organization has to deal with both sides of the border, Iraq and Syria,” Rhodes said. “The strategy that we are already undertaking does address that in the sense that we are providing training and equipping and assistance to the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish security forces who are fighting them on the ground in Iraq.

“We are also providing support and military assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition,” he added. “What we would like to see is those efforts squeeze the space where [ISIS] operates.”

Rhodes cautioned that no decisions have been made.

“I don’t want to get ahead of decisions the President hasn’t been presented with, specific military options outside of those carrying out the current missions in Iraq,” he said. “But we would certainly look at what is necessary in the long term to make sure we’re protecting Americans.”

TIME Foreign Policy

U.S. Diplomats Banned From Ice Bucket Challenge

US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks while releasing the 2013 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom July 28, 2014, at the US State Department in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks while releasing the 2013 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom on July 28, 2014, in Washington, D.C. Paul J. Richards—AFP/Getty Images

Lawyers say it's an ethical issue

John Kerry will not be dumping ice water over his head and filming it. Lawyers at the State Department have forbidden U.S. diplomats from participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge, a social-media phenomenon raising money and awareness for ALS.

In a cable sent this week to U.S. ambassadors and foreign-service officers, and obtained Thursday by the Associated Press, the lawyers said the it’s an ethical issue.

“There are firmly established rules preventing the use of public office, such as our ambassadors, for private gain, no matter how worthy a cause,” the cable said. “Thus, high-ranking State Department officials are unfortunately unable to participate in the ice bucket challenge. We since wish the ALS Association continued success in its ice bucket campaign, and in its fight against Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

Celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Oprah Winfrey and George W. Bush are among those who have posted videos of themselves dumping freezing cold water on their heads. The Ice Bucket Challenge has raised over $40 million so far.

[AP]

TIME Iraq

U.S. Officials: Military Mulling More Troops to Iraq

(WASHINGTON) — U.S. officials say military planners are weighing the possibility of sending more American forces to Iraq mainly to provide additional security around Baghdad.

A senior U.S. official says the number of troops currently under discussion would be fewer than 300, but there has been no final decision yet by Pentagon leaders.

The talks come as American fighter jets and drones conducted nearly a dozen airstrikes in Iraq since Tuesday when Islamic State militants threatened to kill a second American captive in retribution for any continued attacks.

A U.S. official says the strikes came in the hours after militants released a gruesome video Tuesday showing U.S. journalist James Foley being beheaded.

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Says ‘Entire World Is Appalled’ by ISIS Beheading of Journalist

"No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day"

+ READ ARTICLE

President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the “entire world is appalled” by the death of American journalist James Foley, who was kidnapped in Syria more than 18 months ago and whose death was depicted in a video Tuesday.

The militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) posted the graphic video of the execution on Tuesday, calling it retribution for American airstrikes against Sunni extremist forces in Iraq. The U.S. intelligence community has authenticated the video, National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said.

“Today the entire world is appalled by the murder of journalist Jim Foley,” Obama said Wednesday in an emotional statement from Martha’s Vineyard.

Obama said the Middle East must work to “extract this cancer” that threatens the stability of Iraq and the region. “[ISIS] speaks for no religion,” Obama said. “Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim.”

“No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day,” he added.

Obama called Foley’s family on Wednesday morning to express his condolences on the loss of their son.

“Jim was taken from us in an act of violence that shocked the conscience of the entire world,” Obama said.

The video also includes a threat to kill Steven Sotloff, a freelance journalist who has written for TIME and other outlets, and has been missing since August 2013. “We keep in our prayers those other Americans who are separated from their families,” Obama said. “We will do everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for.”

Obama said the United States would continue its efforts to confront ISIS. “The United States of America will do what we must to protect our people,” he said. “We will be vigilant, and we will be relentless.”

A Facebook page affiliated with the Foley family’s campaign for his release posted a message Tuesday evening from his mother, Diane Foley.

“We have never been prouder of our son Jim,” she wrote. “He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people. …We thank Jim for all the joy he gave us. He was an extraordinary son, brother, journalist and person. Please respect our privacy in the days ahead as we mourn and cherish Jim.”

Foley “was taken by an organized gang after departing from an internet café in Binesh, Syria,” near the Turkish border, the FBI said in an alert following the Nov. 22, 2012, kidnapping. He was in Binesh covering the Syrian civil war for the GlobalPost website and AFP.

Foley, 40, grew up in New Hampshire, where his parents live.

-Additional reporting by Mark Thompson.

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama’s Mission Creep in Iraq

US-POLITICS-OBAMA
US President Barack Obama speaks about the US involvement in Iraq, as well as the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, August 18, 2014. Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

For George W. Bush it was "Mission Accomplished." For Barack Obama, it may be "mission creep."

In 2003, George W. Bush was too quick to declare that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” In 2014, Barack Obama may be too slow to admit that they are just beginning.

On Monday, President Obama boasted to White House reporters that U.S. airstrikes had helped Iraqi forces reclaim the Mosul Dam, which Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters captured in early August. That was great news. A dam breach — from sabotage or poor maintenance — could have drowned thousands and even flooded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

But it was not an objective Obama had publicly mentioned before, even though ISIS had controlled the dam for two weeks. Does Obama worry about “mission creep,” asked a Reuters correspondent? No way, Obama said. “I have been firm from the start that we are not reintroducing thousands of U.S. troops on the ground to re-engage in combat,” the President said.

“Typically what happens with mission creep is we start deciding that we’re the ones who have to do it all ourselves,” Obama added.

Of course, mission creep doesn’t have to mean a huge ground force, or going it alone. (America became mired in Vietnam while fighting in tandem with South Vietnamese forces.) It can simply mean expanding goals that lead to an unexpectedly large military campaign. And we’re already seeing signs of that in Iraq.

Rewind to August 7, when Obama spoke in prime time to announce his first airstrikes in Iraq. He described two limited and discrete operations. One was “targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel” in the Kurdish city of Erbil, which ISIS was threatening to capture. The other was a humanitarian mission to save thousands of Yazidi civilians trapped by ISIS on a mountain and facing what Obama called “an act of genocide.”

Obama can check those boxes: A Kurdish counteroffensive backed by the U.S. and Baghdad has driven ISIS away from Erbil. As for the Yezidis, Obama said on Friday that “the situation on the mountain has greatly improved” thanks to U.S. efforts, and that most have escaped to safety.

But then another item was quietly added to the to-do list: the Mosul Dam. Announced with little fanfare by a Sunday White House statement, the operation entailed 35 airstrikes on ISIS positions in the area.

On Monday Obama justified that action as “directly tied to our objective of protecting Americans in Iraq,” because a dam breach would have “endangered our embassy compound in Baghdad.”

Never mind that Baghdad is more than 250 miles south of Mosul, presumably allowing time for a relocation or evacuation of U.S. personnel. It’s hard to fault a casualty-free operation that might have averted a catastrophe — and killed some ISIS fanatics along the way.

The worry is that Obama’s rationale of “protecting Americans in Iraq” can be stretched to justify almost any kind of military action — especially now that he has more than doubled the U.S. presence in Iraq to nearly 2000 personnel since June. (A key stage of mission creep in Vietnam involved sending troops to protect U.S. air bases in that country.)

But Obama has given himself even broader license than that. When he announced the dispatch of 300 military advisors to Iraq back on June 19, Obama wrote himself something like a blank check.

“[W]e will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action,” Obama said, “if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”

That language covers even more action that Obama’s protect-Americans vow. ISIS is little too close to Baghdad? Boom. Intel about suicide bombers eyeing Erbil? Boom. Imminent slaughter somewhere? Boom, boom, boom.

You can support all those actions and still find Obama’s explanations a little cloudy. After all, Obama has promised “limited” military action before — only to shatter those limits. In March 2011, Obama said he was ordering airstrikes in Libya to prevent a civilian massacre by regime forces in Benghazi. The ensuing air campaign lasted for seven months and involved more than 26,000 air sorties by a multinational coalition.

Could we be at the start of something similar? The Pentagon says the U.S. has already conducted 68 airstrikes in Iraq since August 8, and Obama is talking about more assistance for the new government forming in Baghdad.

Fortunately for Obama, the public isn’t creeped out just yet. Fifty-four percent of Americans approve of his airstrikes so far, according to an August 18 Pew Research Center-USA Today poll.

But that support may be fragile. Pew also found that 51 percent of Americans worry Obama “will go too far getting involved in the situation.”

Obama’s vow not to commit ground troops to combat will help maintain political support. Still, that number could grow — especially if he doesn’t explain clearly how his mission can be neither accomplished nor creeping.

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Hails Elimination of Syria Chemical Weapons

(WASHINGTON) — President Barack Obama says the elimination of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile marks an important achievement in the effort to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

But while hailing that achievement, Obama says Syria now must follow through on its commitment to destroy its remaining declared chemical weapons production facilities.

In a written statement, Obama also says concerns about omissions and discrepancies in Syria’s declaration to the organization that oversaw the destruction must be addressed.

Syria agreed to give up its chemical arsenal last fall when Obama threatened missile strikes in retaliation for a chemical attack on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. The attack is believed to have killed more than 1,000 people.

The weapons were destroyed aboard the U.S. cargo vessel MV Cape Ray in international waters.

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Hails Retaking of Mosul Dam in Iraq

US-POLITICS-OBAMA
US President Barack Obama speaks about the US involvement in Iraq, as well as the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, August 18, 2014. Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi and Kurdish forces wrested control of the dam early Monday, with air support from the U.S.

President Barack Obama praised Iraqi gains against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in recent days, as U.S.-backed forces wrested control of a key dam from the militant group.

On Monday, Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. airpower, recaptured the strategic Mosul dam from the Sunni extremist group, both securing a vital source of electricity and preventing a catastrophic release of water that could have inundated parts of northern Iraq.

Speaking from the White House after returning early Monday for a brief interlude from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation, Obama hailed the dam operation as a “major step forward” in the battle against ISIS.

“If that dam was breached, it could have proven catastrophic, with floods that would’ve threatened the lives of thousands of civilians and endanger our embassy compound in Baghdad,” Obama said. “Iraqi and Kurdish forces took the lead on the ground and performed with courage and determination. So this operation demonstrates that Iraqi and Kurdish forces are capable of working together and taking the fight to ISIL. If they continue to do so, they will have the strong support of the United States of America.”

U.S. Central Command has been carrying out strikes against ISIS targets near the dam with fighter, attack, bomber, and unmanned aerial assets since Saturday. On Sunday, Obama informed Congress that he had authorized strikes against ISIS targets near the dam.

“Let’s remember, ISIL poses a threat to all Iraqis and to the entire region,” Obama said, using an alternative acronym for the militant group. “They claim to represent Sunni grievances, but they slaughter Sunni men, women and children. They claim to oppose foreign forces, but they actively recruit foreign fighters to advance their hateful ideology. So the Iraqi people need to reject them and unite to begin to push them out of the lands that they’ve occupied, as we’re seeing at Mosul Dam.”

Obama also announced continued progress in the effort to build an international coalition to provide humanitarian assistance to northern Iraq, as well as working with the newly designated Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Albadi on building a more inclusive government in Iraq.

“This is going to take time,” Obama added. “There are going to be many challenges ahead. But meanwhile, there should be no doubt that the United States military will continue to carry out the limited missions that I’ve authorized: protecting our personnel and facilities in Iraq in both Erbil and Baghdad; and providing humanitarian support as we did on Mount Sinjar.”

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