For President Barack Obama and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the Islamic State needs to be stopped at all costs.
But despite additional focus on the terrorist group since Obama submitted his draft proposal for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force last week, Israelis and some American lawmakers believe Iran is a greater threat to both the United States and Israel and that the fight against IS should not divert attention from Iran’s actions to achieve dominance over its neighbors.
Even as Israel supports efforts against IS, also known as ISIS and ISIL, and other terrorists organizations in the region, concerns about likely American coordination with Iran, which is aiding Hezbollah terrorists in new hostilities to Israel’s north, are a far more pressing problem.
In light of the convoluted alliances in the region, the United States and its allies have been forced to coordinate with some of their own and Israel’s enemies.
“I think our first priority has to be to defeat ISIS and I think that this fight is going to make strange bedfellows,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “We’re obviously talking to the Iranians on issues like their nuclear future while fighting them on other issues like their support for other terrorist organizations. You know, our partner is never perfect in the Middle East.”
Despite lacking a unified perspective, to Israel, the American coordination with Iran – which is necessitated by both countries conducting airstrikes against the same enemy – is cause for concern. In the fight against IS, Iran aims to defeat the Sunni radicals of IS to help achieve its goal of dominating the Shiite crescent – areas where Shiite Muslims make up a majority or large portions of the population such as in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
Though IS threatens the entire Middle East, including Israel, Hezbollah – the Shiite terrorist organization supported by Iran – is an imminent threat, made more credible by recent escalations of violence along Israel’s northern border.
IS and Iran are like “cholera and the plague,” said Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “I think Israel with the United States should fight against both. But the more grave danger… is the Iranian danger.”
Iran has continued perfecting its intercontinental ballistic missiles that are now capable of reaching Europe and soon could be able to reach the United States armed with a nuclear warhead.
The United States is too soft with Iran because it “thinks ISIL is more dangerous than the Iranian threat,” Maoz stressed, “and I think it’s the other way around.”
Appearing on Face the Nation late last year, Netanyahu explained his stance on IS:
“We’re fully coordinated with the United States. We exchange all the information that needs to be exchanged and I really don’t want to go beyond that, but I will say that I think we have a global conflict here,” said Netanyahu. “I mean, basically, the Middle East is awash with militant Islamists. The militant Islamists led by al Qaeda and – and ISIS on the Sunni side, the militant Islamists led by Iran and Hezbollah. On the Shiite side, we want both of them to lose. The last thing we want is to have any one of them get weapons of mass destruction.”
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) agreed with Maoz and the prime minister that Iran is a bigger threat — not just an imminent, existential threat for Israel, but also for the United States.
“Iran is a much, much bigger threat to the United States than ISIL can ever be; the only real strategic threat to the United States on the horizon today is Iran,” said Nadler. “Iran is developing an intercontinental ballistic missile. There is no purpose to an ICBM other than to carry a nuclear warhead to America.
“We have fought two stupid wars so far: in Iraq, in Afghanistan. We wasted lives, we wasted money and we wasted credibility with the American people. I am concerned that if we do too much with ISIL, if and when we need to really do something with Iran – which is a real threat to us potentially – there will be little patience on the part of the American people.”
On Feb. 11, Obama formally asked permission from Congress to allow him to continue waging the campaign against IS, sending lawmakers a draft for the new AUMF. Although lawmakers in both legislatures and political parties welcomed the president’s request for a new authorization at the end of the previous Congress, Obama’s new authorization request is being attacked by both sides. Democrats call it too broad. Republicans call it too weak.
Currently, the U.S. military is operating under broad authorizations passed during the administration of President George W. Bush.
The first from 2001, authorized the president to combat Al-Qaida and its affiliates anywhere in the world, and another from 2003, authorizing the use of military force in Iraq. The administration has argued that IS was a descendent of al-Qaeda and is covered by the 2001 AUMF.
But there was no authorization that would officially allow action by the U.S. military forces in Syria, especially since IS is different – sometimes even opposed – to al-Qaeda.
The president promised to use the authorization to bolster local forces in Syria and Iraq to fight IS but left the draft flexible to allow limited ground forces if deemed necessary.
Though Congress had asked for such a request from Obama when airstrikes against IS began, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are scarred from previous authorizations during the Bush administration – which lead to full troop deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq – and are determined to thoroughly scrutinize Obama’s proposal.
Democrats, like California Rep. Brad Sherman, expressed concern that the president’s proposal was too broad, especially as it keeps in place the 2001 AUMF against al-Qaeda, which most Democrats hope to repeal or sunset as they consider it infinitely broad.
“You have to put it in context. The president starts with the powers given him by the 1973 War Powers Act, also called the war powers resolution, he [also] currently has the powers under the 2001 and 2003 AUMFs,” said Sherman. “His proposed draft repeals the 2003 AUMF but very conspicuously and deliberately does not repeal the 2001 AUMF. By doing so, if we were to vote on his draft, we are in affect reaffirming, republishing, the 2001 AUMF.”
Sherman described the 2001 AUMF as allowing the president to send hundreds of thousands of troops, anywhere in the world, under only the premise that a group claims to be linked to al-Qaida, without any constraints such as how many troops to deploy, what kind of force is to be used and for how long.
The Democrats’ second concern, according to Sherman, was the authorization request’s use of “enduring offensive ground operations,” which Democrats believe is not specific enough about who will go to fight IS, where and in what numbers.
“I think it’s a good foundation and debate in Congress to start,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I think the challenge is striking the balance between giving the president the wherewithal to degrade and defeat ISIL and not giving him an open and blank check.”
The request did not find many friends among the Republicans either. They criticized it for not outlining a strategy to bolster what they deem to be the administrations failing current strategy.
“We need to be assured that the White House’s strategy is to decisively win and defeat ISIL,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), who served as an Army officer in Iraq. “It’s important for me to know exactly what the president’s strategy is going to be to ensure victory before I would ever hope to commit American troops to put life and limb in harm’s way. I would never support that if we were going to give it a halfhearted effort.”