Senator Wonders If Obama Needs War Declaration to Take Out Assad's Air Force

By Susan Jones | April 29, 2016 | 8:16am EDT
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) (AP File Photo)

( - Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) wondered aloud on Thursday why President Obama hasn't instructed the U.S. military to prevent civilian deaths in Syria "by taking out" Syrian President Bashar Assad's air force.

"We have not declared war on the Syrian regime, Senator," Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford replied.

"You're not saying it would take a congressional declaration of war to take that action?" Wicker asked Dunford at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"I think it would take the president directing us to do that, Senator," Dunford said.

"Okay," Wicker said. "So I wonder why the president has not directed us to prevent these civilian fatalities and casualties by taking out Assad's air force?"

"The task he's given us militarily is against ISIL, Senator," Dunford said.

Wicker asked Dunford what he would recommend to the president "as to whether we should take out the air force that is causing the majority of the civilian fatalities and casualties."

"Senator, I would prefer not to give that recommendation in public," Dunford said. "That's a policy recommendation -- that if I was going to provide that, I'd provide it to the president in private."

"Okay," Wicker said, ending his exchange with Dunford.

Congress has never declared war -- a power bestowed by the Constitution -- against the Islamic State terrorists that President Obama has promised to "degrade and defeat." Nor has Congress authorized military action specifically against ISIS/ISIL in Iraq and Syria, as the 1973 War Powers Resolution requires.

The Obama White House derives its authority to send more and more troops to Iraq and Syria from a 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that mentions only those who "planned, authorized, committed or aided" the September 11th attacks, or those who harbored such people (al Qaeda).

At the White House on Thursday, shortly after Dunford testified, spokesman Josh Earnest was asked about the prospects of getting a new AUMF that covers the ongoing and growing military action against ISIS/ISIL before Obama leaves office.

"Well...this was part of the strategy that we laid out, I guess it was at the beginning of last year, for congressional passage of a new authorization to use military force against ISIL. What we had suggested that Congress should do is pass a new authorization to use military force that would cover our actions against ISIL," Earnest said.

"That would allow Congress to then take the step of repealing the 2002 AUMF (which authorized U.S. military against Saddam Hussein's Iraq) and further refine the 2001 AUMF in a way that would more narrowly tailor the authorization that had been given to the Executive Branch.

"So that's the approach that we took. We actually (proposed) legislative language that would have affected all of these changes, but the president also asked senior members of his national security team to travel up to Capitol Hill and testify under oath on camera before Congress to encourage them to take these steps.

“But unfortunately, like so many other things we think that Congress should so obviously do, Republicans have failed to act.”

Earnest said the military actions President Obama has ordered against ISIL in Iraq, Syria and even Libya "are covered by the 2001 AUMF."

"The 2001 AUMF does refer to Al Qaeda and there still are places around the world where there are Al Qaeda networks that -- where the United States is taking action to limit their threat to United States.

"So we do believe that we still need to have the authority to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, and where necessary, continue to apply pressure to Al Qaeda affiliates around the globe. So we do believe that authorization is necessary.

"We believe that authorization could be given in a way that's much more narrowly tailored than it currently is under the 2001 authorization to use military force."

Congressional Republicans rejected Obama's proposed AUMF, partly because they say he has no clear strategy to defeat ISIS. They also said the proposed language would tie the hands of the next president.

But objecting Republicans never rewrote the proposal, and there is no political will to do so.

Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, repeatedly has accused Congress of shirking its duty, and he did so again on Friday.

"We haven't done it (produced an AUMF) because Congress just wants to fly-speck the president, say you're not doing it right. But boy, don't ask us to vote yes or no."

Kaine told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that a congressional war declaration would be very helpful in determining the U.S. strategy toward ISIS.

"The president comes and has to make the case, and usually proposes an authorization. And Congress doesn't accept what the president proposes. Congress put the State Department and military witnesses in the dock, asks them tough questions, takes the president's originally proposed authorization and changes it.

“President Bush presented one authorization after 9/11. Congress didn't pass it. They ended up changing it. That's how you work on a strategy, and you do it with the American public watching, so that eventually, when Congress votes, the American public has been brought in to what's at stake."

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