Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the Obama administration wants Congress to authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State in a way that preserves the option of using ground troops.
Kerry's recommendation at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing drew immediate criticism from Democrats, many of whom continue to warn against any possibility of new, lengthy commitments for the U.S. military, after a decade of war in the Middle East.
The Obama administration has said it doesn't want to use ground troops in any significant way as it fights the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq. But Kerry told the committee that Congress shouldn't approve any language making that impossible.
"The president has been crystal clear that his policy is that U.S. military forces will not be deployed to conduct ground combat operations against ISIL," Kerry said at a hearing designed to hear the administration's thoughts on a new authorization for use of military force, or AUMF.
"However, while we certainly believe that this is the soundest possible policy, and while the president has been clear he is open to clarifications on the use of U.S. combat troops to be outlined in an AUMF, it doesn't mean that we should preemptively bind the hands of the commander in chief or our commanders in the field in responding to scenarios and contingencies that are impossible to foresee," he said.
Democrats immediately heard that as a request for language that doesn't impose limits along the lines of those some have already called for. Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said his proposed AUMF bill gives the administration all the flexibility it needs, except for the option of a long-term ground presence, and pressed Kerry to explain why the authority should go further.
"Because none of us can imagine all of the circumstances that may arise," Kerry replied.
"Would a hostage attempt have been prevented?" he asked. "What happens if chemical weapons fall into the hands of ISIL, or are about to, and there's an emergency need to prevent that from happening because there's a cache that wasn't reported that we discover through intelligence?"
Kerry also stressed that President Barack Obama has no desire to launch a new ground war. But Menendez didn't sound supportive, and indicated that the authorization could be used by a president with different views.
"It sounds like you're making a case for a rather open-ended authorization," Menendez said. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) had a similar reaction, by saying she would not vote for any AUMF that sets up the possibility of a new ground war.
Opposition from Democrats may be mooted by the calendar. In just a few weeks, Republicans will run the Senate, and they will likely be more open to an AUMF that fits Kerry's description. Kerry recommended that Congress and the administration start working together on a new AUMF, and said that work might be able to finish in January.
Kerry also said the administration doesn't want a new AUMF to put limits on where the U.S. can engage the Islamic State. "In our view, it would be a mistake to advertise to ISIL that there are safe havens for them outside of Iraq or Syria," he said.
He also said he supports the Menendez proposal to limit the authorization to three years, although he said he wants the possibility of an extension in the AUMF.
Both Republicans and Democrats have criticized the Obama administration for failing to give Congress a proposed AUMF. But when asked about it today, Kerry said the Senate should start by using Menendez's language, and then adjust it based on further talks with the administration.