TIME nation

Obama Goes to War (With Congress)

The President began bombing ISIS on his own, but only Congress can start a war

Earlier this summer, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine found himself in the Grand Foyer of the White House playing the foreign policy–hypothetical game with President Obama. Over drinks with some Senate Democrats, the President mentioned Kaine’s article that day in the Washington Post demanding a congressional vote to authorize any new military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the armed extremist group overtaking large chunks of Iraq.

The Law Professor in Chief, who campaigned for office promising to rein in executive power, proposed some scenarios. “He’d say, ‘Here’s the situation. Do you think I have executive authority to act?'” Among the possibilities Kaine recalls: What if there is an imminent threat to a U.S. embassy? “We generally agreed on most of them,” says Kaine. But not all.

Two months later, those debates are no longer hypothetical. Since Aug. 8, Obama has unilaterally ordered more than 100 bombing runs on ISIS targets in northern Iraq, citing his authority under Article II of the Constitution to protect U.S. lives and offer humanitarian aid. Hundreds of military advisers have been dispatched to Iraq, along with shipments of lethal equipment to proxy forces in the region. Through it all, the White House has maintained that Obama has no plans to seek permission from Congress, which returns from recess on Sept. 8.

The Constitution gives the President the power to defend the country as Commander in Chief, but it delegates the power to declare war to Congress. Kaine is one of several Senators who believe Obama has stretched his powers about as far as they can go. “I am worried about the consequences of Congress basically saying the President can decide unilaterally which organizations to launch air strikes against,” says Kaine.

The Obama Administration, meanwhile, has been signaling that the conflict with ISIS is likely to expand before it contracts. U.S. officials worry about what they believe are hundreds of ISIS fighters with Western passports who could attack Europe or the U.S. if they return to their homelands. General Martin Dempsey, who chairs the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that defeating ISIS will require action by U.S. or other forces on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. Days later, Pentagon sources leaked news of new U.S. surveillance flights over Syria to better map out ISIS positions, a possible prerequisite to expanded bombing efforts. “Rooting out a cancer like [ISIS] won’t be easy and it won’t be quick,” Obama said on Aug. 26. Though the White House insists no decisions have been made for an expanded campaign against ISIS, no one denies that preparations are under way.

The ironies of the situation are striking. A President who helped build his national profile by opposing the war in Iraq now must decide whether to force a vote on a similar military adventure just weeks before midterm elections. But the commander who deferred to Congress rather than launch air strikes on Syria last year may not be able to attract the votes on Capitol Hill that he has in the past claimed to need. “I believe our democracy is stronger when the President acts with the support of Congress,” Obama said one year ago. “And I believe America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.”

There are plenty of reasons for the White House to avoid a bitter debate over a new war in the Middle East. Obama’s attempts to get approval from Congress for the last round of Syria strikes failed to muster the required votes, and it divided his own party, upsetting many on the left. He has also spent some of his second term celebrating what he described as the coming end to the war on terror, a goal that seems increasingly distant. Congressional leadership on both sides is skittish about a vote. “Neither he nor the Congress wants to have this dance now,” says Jack Goldsmith, who led the Office of Legal Counsel for President George W. Bush. “That’s really what is going on.”

In the meantime, the White House has been searching for a legal justification for a protracted military campaign that doesn’t involve going to Congress. A 2002 congressional authorization to use force in Iraq remains on the books, but the White House announced in July that the document “is no longer used” and should be repealed. That leaves the 2001 congressional authorization to pursue those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, which a White House spokesperson says the Administration is “currently reviewing” to see if it applies to ISIS.

But Obama allies like Kaine, who otherwise supports Obama’s ISIS campaign, say that document clearly doesn’t cover ISIS, which did not exist in 2001. Far from being a partner of al-Qaeda, ISIS has emerged as a rival in the region. And in 2001, Congress rejected a White House request for broader authorization to allow military force against threats unconnected to al-Qaeda.

A third option–perhaps the most likely outcome–is for Obama to declare that his constitutional powers allow him to continue the conflict without Congress. A Vietnam-era law requires the President to seek congressional authorization for hostilities within 60 days of their launch, or begin military drawdowns; that deadline would expire after Oct. 7. But Obama never sought such authorization for the bombing campaign that toppled Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Instead, his lawyers argued that the limited nature of U.S. support for air strikes on Libya did not amount to “hostilities” under the law.

In the end, the greatest risk for Obama in avoiding Congress may be to his legacy. No court is likely to force him to stop military action, and Congress is unlikely to unite around a demand for a vote. But Obama has repeatedly promised the American people a more democratic approach to warfare. As so often happens in the Oval Office, the President must now decide whether to pay a political price to uphold his public vows.

–WITH REPORTING BY JAY NEWTON-SMALL AND ZEKE MILLER/WASHINGTON

TIME Military

U.S. Launched Operation to Rescue ISIS Hostages, Pentagon Says

Journalist James Foley covers the civil war in Aleppo, Syria, in November 2012.
Journalist James Foley covers the civil war in Aleppo, Syria, in November 2012. Nicole Tung—AP

No hostages were found at the target location

Updated Aug. 20, 9 p.m. ET

The United States launched a rescue operation this summer to free American hostages held in Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Department of Defense said Wednesday, but no hostages were found at the target location.

In a statement released a day after the Sunni extremist group released a graphic video showing the execution of American journalist James Foley, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. Kirby confirmed that American air and ground forces attempted a rescue to free a number of American hostages held by militants in Syria.

A U.S. government official confirmed Wednesday night that Foley was among the Americans the military attempted to rescue.

“This operation involved air and ground components and was focused on a particular captor network within [ISIS]. Unfortunately, the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location,” Kirby said. “As we have said repeatedly, the United States government is committed to the safety and well-being of its citizens, particularly those suffering in captivity. In this case, we put the best of the United States military in harms’ way to try and bring our citizens home.”

Lisa Monaco, the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, said Obama authorized the operation “because it was the national security team’s assessment that these hostages were in danger with each passing day in [ISIS] custody.”

The ground portion of the operation was carried out by U.S. special forces operators. Monaco said the government wouldn’t go into detail on the operation to protect “operational capabilities.”

“The United States government uses the full breadth of our military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to bring people home whenever we can,” Kirby said. “The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will work tirelessly to secure the safety of our citizens and to hold their captors accountable.”

In a statement to reporters Wednesday, Obama referenced the Americans still being held by ISIS. “We keep in our prayers those other Americans who are separated from their families. We will do everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for. “

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 White House

Obama Declines Ice Bucket Challenge

President Obama Makes A Statement
U.S. President Barack Obama Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

He'll donate cold, hard cash instead

Presidents, they’re just like us! Just like everyone you’ve ever Facebook friended, President Obama has formally been invited, by Ethel Kennedy no less, to dump a bucket of ice over his head to raise attention for Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS.

While the 86-year-old Kennedy matriarch had the strength of will to take the challenge, Obama has officially declined the ice and instead is offering cold, hard cash.

“The President appreciates Mrs. Kennedy thinking of him for the challenge — though his contribution to this effort will be monetary,” said White House spokesperson Eric Shutlz. Obama has promised to make a donation to an ALS charity this week.

Since the Ice Bucket Challenge kicked off July 29, the national ALS Association has raised $2.3 million, including $1 million raised since Monday afternoon.

With reporting by Zeke J. Miller

TIME Transportation

The Truth About Obama’s High-Speed Rail Program

Don't believe the New York Times or the train haters who cite it: High-speed rail is not an $11-billion failure.

The New York Times has declared President Barack Obama’s high-speed rail program a failure. “Despite the administration spending nearly $11 billion since 2009 to develop faster passenger trains, the projects have gone mostly nowhere,” America’s paper of record reported Aug. 6—in its news pages, not its opinion section. The story quickly rocketed into Republican talking points and conservative op-eds as fresh evidence of presidential haplessness.

But it’s wrong. The administration hasn’t spent anywhere near $11 billion. The projects haven’t gone mostly nowhere. There are legitimate questions about the high-speed rail initiative—and the administration’s hype has outstripped its ability to deliver in an era of divided government—but the public debate over the program has been almost completely detached from the reality on the ground.

Here’s the real story.

First of all, while Congress has appropriated $10.5 billion (not $11 billion) for high-speed rail, only $2.4 billion (definitely not $11 billion) of it has been spent to date, much of it on planning, design and other pre-construction work. The big construction spending has just started, and will continue through September 2017. Yet the Times and other critics are judging the program as if it had already blown through all its cash. The new meme on the right is that Obama has poured $11 billion into high-speed rail with nothing to show for it. In fact, less than one-fourth of the money has gone out the door. Just because funds have been appropriated and even “obligated” does not mean they’ve been spent, much less “poured.”

That fundamental mistake alone is enough to refute the basic thesis of the Times‘ gotcha story. But it also fuels other widespread public misperceptions about what the program has already achieved, what it’s supposed to achieve, and why it’s unlikely to achieve Obama’s grand vision for high-speed rail. The first sentence of the Times article noted U.S. passenger rail “still lags far behind Europe and China,” but that’s an absurd and annoyingly common straw man to use to slag the program.

Really, the initiative that Obama launched with his 2009 stimulus bill should have been called “higher-speed rail.” As I wrote a few years ago in TIME, it was partly about creating new routes for 200-mile-per-hour bullet trains like the ones already zipping around Europe and Asia, but it was mostly about improving slower-speed Amtrak routes so they would be incrementally faster and more reliable. America’s freight rail system is the envy of the world, but our passenger rail system is awful; the goal of the program was to make it less awful—a more realistic alternative to long drives and short flights.

So where did the Administration send the money? The big winners in the initial state-by-state competition were Florida and California, which had ambitious plans for new bullet trains. But after Rick Scott, a Tea Party Republican, was elected governor of Florida in 2010, he killed the Sunshine State’s Tampa-to-Orlando-to-Miami train and sent $2.4 billion back to Washington. That meant the far more daunting and less shovel-ready San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line would be America’s only new bullet-train project. After years of legal and political warfare, California is just now preparing to start laying track in the Central Valley.

The rest of the high-speed money is going to lower-speed projects where Amtrak trains share tracks with lumbering freight trains. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad projects. “They’re not as sexy, and maybe they don’t look like much, but they’re providing tangible benefits,” Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo said in an interview. Bridge and tunnel repairs, projects to upgrade and straighten tracks, sidings and double-tracking to help passenger trains pass freight cars, and other incremental improvements can all make rail travel more attractive.

And it’s happening. By 2017, the program will reduce trip times from Chicago to St. Louis by nearly an hour through upgrades that will increase top speeds from 79 to 110 miles per hour; Chicago to Detroit will get a similar boost. The Department of Transportation says it has already sliced off a half-hour between Springfield, Mass., and St. Albans, Vt., while completing projects to reduce delays around San Jose, San Diego, Fort Worth and Oklahoma City. It has extended Amtrak service for the first time to Brunswick, Maine, anchoring a thriving downtown revitalization program, and it’s bringing trains to the Illinois towns of Geneseo and Moline for the first time since 1978. It has renovated stations in St. Paul, Minn., and Portland, Ore, and it’s expanding service between Raleigh and Charlotte, where ridership has nearly tripled since 2005.

You need a pretty crimped sense of “somewhere” to argue that the money is going “mostly nowhere.”

One can certainly argue the money should have gone elsewhere. It’s nice that a new bridge and other Missouri projects have improved on-time performance between Kansas City and St. Louis from about 20 percent to 80 percent, but that’s still not a popular train route. Florida’s Scott and Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, both scuttled solid projects—the $45 million their states spent beforehand was the only inarguably wasted high-speed rail money—but Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, had a strong case for scuttling an absurdly slow-speed project in his state. Many critics have suggested Obama should have focused on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, which is wildly popular—and profitable—even though it’s much slower than it should be.

In fact, the Administration has steered about $850 million to the Northeast Corridor. Szabo was in Trenton last week to tout a massive upgrade to an 80-year-old electrical system that will reduce delays and increase top speeds to 160 m.p.h. on America’s most traveled 23-mile stretch of track. The work will be a prototype for projects along the rest of the corridor, where rail has already replaced air as the dominant form of travel, even though logjams keep average speeds at 70 m.p.h.

Still, it’s true that the bullet-train rhetoric from Obama and the White House’s main train buff, Vice President Joe Biden, has not lived up to the bullet-train reality. It’s also true that the Administration’s spread-it-thin strategy, featuring incremental improvements in 32 states, is hard to justify in a vacuum. You need to walk before you can run, but it doesn’t make much sense to upgrade trains from slow speeds to semi-slow speeds if they’re never going to be able to compete with cars or planes. That’s why in 2011, Biden announced a new six-year, $53 billion plan to expand high-speed rail beyond the initial stimulus investments, a plan that would have built much more groundwork for a truly competitive national passenger rail network.

That plan, however, really has gone nowhere. Once Republicans took over the House, Congress stopped appropriating money for high-speed rail. Period. There was never any chance that bullet trains would be whizzing all over America by now, but the reason there’s no realistic prospect of that happening anytime soon has nothing to do with executive incompetence and everything to do with politics. And while I love the New York Times—even when it publishes ludicrous essays slagging my hometown—its validation of the “mostly nowhere” nonsense will help make sure America’s passenger rail system remains a global joke.

TIME Military

U.S. No Longer Waging a Time-Share War

Peshmerga forces enter Makhmur
Kurdish Peshmerga forces regained some territory in northern Iraq on Sunday. Ensar Ozdemir / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Unlike Obama's earlier military orders, his Iraq plan lacks a deadline

President Obama was eager to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, is eager to pull them out of Afghanistan, and refused to put them into Libya and Syria. His reticence is justifiably rooted in opposition at home to any more ground combat following more than a decade of war after 9/11.

But over the weekend, he warned that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s threat to Kurdish city of Erbil in northern Iraq warranted U.S. military airstrikes, and that they could continue over a sustained period of time. “I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” he said Saturday. “This is going to take some time.” On Sunday, Kurdish forces reportedly ousted ISIS fighters from a pair of border towns 20 miles from Erbil as U.S. warplanes conducted a third consecutive day of attacks on ISIS forces.

Changes in waging war have proliferated since the so-called non-state actors known as al-Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center towers, attacked the Pentagon and sent United Flight 93 diving into a Pennsylvania field. The foe is elusive, metamorphosing from al-Qaeda in Iraq to ISIS, as the jihadist leaders wage battle among themselves for supremacy.

Any conflict that begins, as the latest Iraq venture did, with humanitarian airdrops to thousands of dehydrated and hungry Yazidis in and around Mount Sinjar makes for a different kind of war.

Obama said he acted because of concerns for the safety of U.S. military advisers and consular officials in Erbil, threatened by an ISIS advances over the past week. The advisers are there, and in Baghdad, to plot how the U.S. can aid the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki in its battle against ISIS. Without such a U.S. stake in Libya or Syria, he has felt no need to take military action there.

But the flames now burning around the Middle East are part of a larger conflagration, fueled by crumbling autocracies and religious zealots, who are recruiting unemployed young men eager to belong to something bigger than themselves.

The U.S. and other Western nations essentially are biding their time, hoping such fires will eventually die out with minimal involvement by them. That could happen.

But if ISIS succeeds in establishing anything approximating a real state straddling the Syrian-Iraq border, it will become a new launching pad for attacks against the U.S. and its interests, just like in Taliban-led Afghanistan.

“Every day that goes by, ISIS builds up this caliphate and it becomes a direct threat to the United States of America,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House subcommittee on counter-terrorism, told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “They are more powerful now than al-Qaeda was on 9/11.”

Obama and his successor know that they cannot allow a jihadist-run state, pledged to killing “infidels,” in the heart of the Middle East.

“I would be rushing equipment to Erbil,” Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., told CNN Sunday. “I would be launching airstrikes, not only in Iraq but in Syria against ISIS.”

In a prescient comment that turned out to be correct, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned in 2003 that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would be “a long, hard slog.” Americans tired of both, in part because of the Bush Administration’s ambitious, costly and unrealized plans for remaking both nations.

But what we’re seeing now is a new kind of war, and it requires a new kind of leadership.

Iraq, for its part, needs a leader who can gather its warring factions under one roof and turn it into a functioning 21st Century state.

If such a leader fails to materialize, Iraq will continue its slow-motion suicide.

Then it will take a U.S. leader who is willing to detail the possible risks of continued half-hearted actions—what the New York Times called “a Military Middle Road” in a Sunday headline—in the region. He—or she—will have to fashion a new kind of calibrated, and sustained, warfare that a democracy can support.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 8

1. We won’t know that new investment in Africa works unless we build solid systems for reporting real data about success.

By Nikhil Sonnad in Quartz

2. China needs sweeping reform to shake its deeply ingrained corruption.

By Kenneth Courtis in the Globalist

3. Don’t make college students select a major; make them choose a problem they want to solve.

By Jeff Selingo in LinkedIn

4. Foundations can learn from startup culture to better direct funds and amplify their impact.

By Shauntel Poulson in 1776 DC

5. President Obama can still secure his legacy if he spends his final years in office focused on economic inequality.

By Walter Isaacson in Time

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME U.S.

How Presidents Take Vacation

As Obama kicks off his Martha's Vineyard vacation, TIME looks at other presidential destinations. Fishing, golfing, time at the beach...in short, pretty much like the rest of us

TIME

Obama Can Still Secure His Legacy

If he plays his last two years like the final quarter and not the back nine

+ READ ARTICLE

aspen journal logo

The article also appears in the Aspen Journal of ideas

A question that faces president Obama, however the midterm elections turn out, is whether he’s going to play his final two years as the back nine of a casual afternoon of golf, coasting toward the clubhouse of former presidents, or as the final quarter of a tight basketball game.

When I was working with Steve Jobs on a biography in 2009, he had an inkling that he might only have a couple of active years left. As his cancer kept recurring, instead of slowing him, it spurred him on. In those two years, he refined the iPhone and launched the iPad, thus ushering in the era of mobile computing.

President Obama has scored two monumental achievements: helping to restore the financial system after the 2008 collapse and making it possible for every American to get health care coverage, even if they leave their jobs or have preexisting conditions. Obamacare may be undermined if the Supreme Court guts subsidies for the federal exchanges. If so the sweeping nature of the reform will survive only if Obama mounts a rousing, state-by-state campaign to rally passion for protecting the new health benefits.

As for rescuing the economy, this could be remembered as a hollow victory unless the recovery restores economic opportunity for all Americans. Growing inequality—of income, wealth, and opportunity—is the economic, political, and moral issue of our time. The fundamental creed of America is that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can support your family with dignity and believe that your children will have an even better future. But that is being lost as the middle class continues to be hollowed out and the poor get left further behind.

From the Pope to Thomas Picketty, and from Paul Ryan to Rand Paul, there has been a renewed focus on the moral imperative of economic opportunity. Obama seems ready to make that the defining passion of his final two years. Fighting for a fair deal for every American goes to the core of what he believes, rounds out the narrative of his presidency, secures his historic legacy, and leads naturally into what is likely to be the mission of his post-presidency.

The foundation for such a crusade could be a simple goal, one with moral clarity and patriotic resonance: that every kid in this country deserves a decent shot. He’s got a fresh team in place, and he’s already proposed many elements of an opportunity agenda in his My Brothers’ Keeper Initiative and other speeches. Among them: Universal preschool, so that no child starts off behind. Quality after school activities and summer internships. Apprentice programs like the bill proposed by Senators Cory Booker and Tim Scott. What also could be included is a public-private effort to create a service year program so that every kid after high school or college has the opportunity to spend a year serving their country in a military or domestic corps.

I’ve been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s magisterial narrative of the Teddy Roosevelt era, The Bully Pulpit. In 1903, Roosevelt felt a fierce urge to energize the American people around what he dubbed his “Square Deal for every man, great or small, rich or poor.” He spent nine weeks crossing the country by train, delivering 265 speeches. Most were carefully-crafted explanations of why corporate trusts needed to be reined in and workers needed to be respected. But when he arrived at the Grand Canyon, he began adding passionate calls to protect the environment and preserve nature. The trip not only refreshed his presidency, it refreshed him personally. The old boxer relished not only the “bully pulpit” but also being “in the arena.”

It’s probably not feasible for President Obama to embark on a weeks-long whistle-stop tour barnstorming for a new Fair Deal and a dedication to preserving the planet, though it would sure be fun to watch. It’s hard to break through all of the static, but after the midterms, it may be possible for him to propound a narrative that ties together his proposals for economic opportunity, poverty reduction, and immigration. A vision of a land of opportunity would appeal to most Republicans as well as Democrats.

For the final two years of his term, President Obama could stay above the fray and recognize that it would be pointless, given the dysfunctional nature of Congress, to try to accomplish anything significant. A rational calculus of risks and rewards, and a sober assessment of the possibilities for accomplishing anything in Washington, would argue for that approach. But I can’t help but hope that he decides to race against the clock rather than run it out.

TIME politics

Michelle Obama Jokes That ‘Women Are Smarter Than Men,’ Men Don’t Get It

You can tell she's joking because she rolls her eyes and laughs

Michelle Obama jokingly said Wednesday that “women are smarter than men” during a conversation about girls’ education with former First Lady Laura Bush and journalist Cokie Roberts at the U.S-Africa’s Leader’s Summit Wednesday.

The comment comes around the 2:00 mark, when she and Bush are discussing how countries that oppress women are often countries that are struggling economically. “We can’t waste this spotlight,” Obama said, on the experience of being First Lady. “It is temporary, and life is short, and change is needed, and women are smarter than men.” You can tell she’s joking because of the eye roll, the eyebrow raise, and the fact that the audience laughed after she said it. “And the men can’t complain because you’re outnumbered today,” she continued.

There’s a moment after she says it where she’s probably thinking “oh crap, I’m going to hear about this later.”

And hear about it she did. Men of the internet did not seem to get that Obama was joking:

Which might have just proved her point.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45,988 other followers