This Week Senate Democrats Can Limit the ISIS War

At long last the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote this week on an authorization for the use of force for the war against ISIS that started in early August. There is little doubt that a majority of the committee supports the use of force against ISIS. What will be revealed this week is what limits the committee will support in authorizing the use of force.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has proposed to prohibit the use of US ground troops in combat except for rescue missions and “limited operations against high-value targets” – that is, against terrorist leaders who directly threaten the United States. Kaine’s proposed authorization would expire in one year unless renewed by Congress and would require the White House to give legislators a list of groups that might be covered by the authorization because they are associated with the Islamic State.

This week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is still controlled by Democrats, 10 to eight. In addition, there are at least two military-force-skeptic Republicans on the committee: Sen. Rand Paul (Kentucky) and Sen. Jeff Flake (Arizona). So of the committee’s 18 current members, there are at least 12 plausible votes for restrictions.

Voting to prohibit, with narrow exceptions, the use of US ground troops in combat should be a no-brainer for Democrats. President Obama has promised not to use US ground troops in combat. In the short run, voting to prohibit the use of ground troops in combat would simply be voting to enact the president’s promise into law.

In the long run, the Pentagon is planning a war against ISIS that is likely to last beyond President Obama’s time in office. What we can look forward to if Congress takes no action to limit the war is that the next president of the United States – who, if the conventional wisdom is right, is likely to be less of a military-force skeptic than Obama – will inherit a war without restrictions, which that person can then escalate as he or she sees fit.

Senator Kaine’s proposal would prevent this outcome. If this president or a future one wanted to escalate the conflict against ISIS with US ground combat troops, he or she would have to come back to Congress for new authority. Under Kaine’s proposal to limit targets, if this president or a future one wanted to morph the war into a regime-change war in Syria, that president would have to come back to Congress for the authority to do that. If Kaine’s proposal to “sunset” the authority with a time limit passes, Obama would have to come back for new authority to continue the war a year from now.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), also a member of the committee, has said that when he voted for the Afghanistan war in 2001, he had no idea that US troops would be still be fighting in Afghanistan more than a decade later. If we don’t want to embark on another endless war, we should say so now to the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.