The war resolution the White House sent to Congress today authorizes a range of offensive military actions against ISIS but it also includes a limitation: no “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”
What the heck does that mean?
Asked today if he agreed that language was “fuzzy,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest replied with a firm yes, saying it is “intentionally” fuzzy “because we believe it's important that there aren't overly burdensome constraints that are placed on the commander-in-chief.”
I tried to pin Earnest down on exactly what is authorized. The exchange is revealing.
While the president may not be planning a big military escalation (and there’s absolutely no evidence he is), this resolution leaves plenty of room for dramatically expanding the war against ISIS – both for this president and the next one (it’s a 3-year resolution that will extend well into the first term of the next president).
Here’s the Q&A:
KARL: Following up on the resolution on military force, I just want to make sure I'm reading it properly. There is nothing in this authorization that would prevent an expansion of this war effort beyond Iraq and Syria to other countries?
EARNEST: Well, Jon, there no geographic limitations included in this specific draft legislation.
KARL: So it would offer this president or the next president to authorize this president or the next president to engage in an air campaign against ISIS or ISIL targets that were in Lebanon or if they were in Afghanistan or Pakistan or if they -- if they moved elsewhere?
EARNEST: Well, if necessary, it would preserve the ability of the president, of the commander-in-chief, to order military operations against ISIL or ISIL-affiliated groups in other countries.
And let me explain to you the reason why. Simply, we don't want to send a signal to ISIL that they may be able to establish a safe haven somewhere else, that if we pass a piece of legislation that says, you know, Congress has authorized the president to carry out the use of military targets in Iraq and in Syria, we don't want anybody in ISIL to be left with the impression that if they move to some neighboring country that they will be essentially in a safe haven and not within the range of United States capability.
So that is why we've been clear about -- about not including a geographic limitation in this -- in this proposal.
KARL: And, in the president's letter accompanying this authorization of military force, says that it does not authorize long-term large scale combat operations like those conducted in Afghanistan and Iraq. You would acknowledge that there is a lot of daylight between what's going on now and having 100,000 troops on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan, as we had at one point, in both of those countries.
EARNEST: I would.
KARL: And a lot of room for expansion.
EARNEST: Not only -- what I would acknowledge is that the strategy that the president has pursued, in this case against ISIL to degrade and destroy them, is markedly different than the strategy that was pursued by the previous administration in Iraq.
KARL: (inaudible) that was authorized here, because it clearly authorized what's going on now, but it would also authorize, based on that language, a rather dramatic expansion of the current operations.
EARNEST: Well, I...
KARL: We are nowhere 100,000 ground troops in -- you know, like we were in Iraq or Afghanistan.
EARNEST: That's for sure, and that is...
KARL: And that's the only thing...
EARNEST: ... based on policy decisions made by this commander in chief, that's exactly true.
KARL: But this is gonna apply to the next commander in chief.
EARNEST: It will. It will.
KARL: This will apply to the next president.
EARNEST: Yes. It will. It will.
And the president's been very clear about the -- about the strategy that he has envisioned here. And he's been very clear, I think, about what he believes is in the best interest of the United States. And you are right, that the next commander in chief, when that person is elected by the American people, will have to pursue their own strategy. But they will be -- they will face the same limitations and constraints under the authorization to use military force that that president would.
KARL: But the only constraint I'm seeing is that you can't conduct an operation on the scale that we saw in Iraq or Afghanistan under the previous administration.
EARNEST: Well, it's something that could be -- well, it's something that could be described as enduring offensive ground combat operation.
KARL: A fuzzy term, as you've pointed out...
EARNEST: Well, I acknowledge that what it does is it does preserve the ability of the commander in chief to make the kinds of decisions that he or she believes is in the best interests of the United States.
That said, the president believes we should state clearly, upfront, that the kind of commitment of ground troops that we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan in the previous administration was not in the best interests of the United States.