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Sen. Kaine's Bill Would Limit Obama's Options Against ISIS

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation's highest military officer, said he would recommend putting U.S. troops on the ground to fight ISIS if airstrikes are not enough to defeat the militant group.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Martin Dempsey delivered that message to the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday. This week, lawmakers are set to vote on one limited part of the president's strategy against ISIS, whether to arm and train moderate rebels in Syria. And we'll learn more about that in a moment.

GREENE: What is much less clear is whether Congress will formally vote to authorize broader U.S. military action against ISIS. We're going to hear from someone who thinks they should, though with limits. Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He's on the line. Senator, good morning.

SENATOR TIM KAINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So General Dempsey seemed to catch some people by surprise, especially because the president has said no U.S. ground troops are on the table. You are introducing legislation that seems like it would limit the scope of the president's military options. Could you tell me exactly what you're trying to do?

KAINE: Absolutely. Well, first, I strongly believe that the president needs the support of Congress for this entire mission. He indicated - and others with the administration - they think they have ample legal authority for most of it. But they would welcome congressional involvement. I think Congress has to be involved in this. And so what I've done is I've drafted, for the discussion of the Foreign Relations Committee, an authorization for use of force that does four things, but also has four limitations. The four things that are authorized are the four pillars of the president's presentation last week. Obviously, we all support humanitarian relief to refugees in the circumstance. But with respect to military action or military support, it has three elements - counterterrorism activities, airstrikes of the kind described by the president and support for ground troops in the region fighting ISIL, whether it's vetted Syrian opposition, the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga. So those are the four elements, but the limitations are also very important - no ground troops. We repeal the 2002 authorization that was passed at the beginning of the war in Iraq as obsolete and now unnecessary.

GREENE: And now, that is an authorization, right after 9/11, that President George W. Bush and President Obama have said still applies, giving him what he needs to carry out action now.

KAINE: Well, actually, to make it confusing, there were two. There was one right after 9/11 that was the effort to go after al-Qaida, and then there was the '02 authorization with respect to Iraq. And you're right. The White House is claiming that both of those authorizations cover this effort. I don't believe they do. This one would repeal the 2002 Iraq authorization. There's ongoing effort to narrow down the '01 authorization. There's a one-year sunset in the provision that I put. The mission might go on beyond a year, but it would require the president and Congress to make a decision to continue the effort. And finally and importantly, my authorization dramatically narrows what the administrations have used as a definition of associated forces. With respect to al-Qaida they say, well, we're going after al-Qaida but also associated forces. And the definition of that is so broad as to be, you know, almost meaningless. And so my authorization really carefully narrows - if we're going to go after ISIL, we're not just going to then say, well, you know, you met up with ISIL the other day, so we're going after you now.

GREENE: So Senator, you're saying ISIL, some call it ISIS, is a different threat, very distinct from al-Qaida. Let me just ask you very specifically, would your bill that you are putting on the table allow for what General Martin Dempsey said he might have to consider...

KAINE: No.

GREENE: If airstrikes don't work? It would not.

KAINE: It would not - no ground troops. Now, we state - limitations are important. If we need to put people on the ground to rescue Americans, we would do it. But that is the only circumstance under which ground troops would be used, is in the rescue of Americans. Now...

GREENE: Senator, let me, if I can, before - we just don't have a whole lot of time.

KAINE: Yeah.

GREENE: I just wonder - tell me why that doesn't tie the hands of the president, if we have the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff calling for something that you're saying, you know, would not be allowed if Congress votes for this.

KAINE: You know, it does tie the hands of the president. But it ties the hands in exactly the way he described the mission to the nation last Wednesday night. He said no ground troops. General Dempsey did not surprise me yesterday. He said what any military leader should say; I'll always give my best recommendation. It's the president that makes the decision. The president said to the nation last week that this is going to be a no ground troops engagement. And so we put a limitation in the authorization to precisely match the president's description of the mission.

GREENE: Well Senator, we just have a few seconds left. Let me just ask you - I mean, you have said yourself that this could be a very politically messy debate in Congress if there's a debate over whether to approve military force. I mean, isn't there a risk that that could be a distraction for the president? Tell me why it's so important for Congress to do this.

KAINE: It's important for two reasons. First, the most difficult decision we make is whether to go to war. And that is a power reserved to Congress in the Constitution. But more importantly, we're going to be asking people to risk their lives in a military mission like this. And we shouldn't do that if we are not willing to do the hard work of reaching a political consensus that the mission is worth it. That's the real reason that we need to have this debate.

GREENE: Tim Kaine is Democratic Senator from Virginia. Senator, thanks for the time this morning.

KAINE: Absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.