Fourteen months into the American-led coalition’s airstrikes on the Islamic State in Syria, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) still wants Congress to weigh in.
Not even halfway through his first term, the junior senator from Virginia is making a name for himself in Washington as the leading advocate for Congressional authorization of military operations. The former Richmond mayor, Virginia governor and Democratic National Committee chairman was once on Barack Obama’s vice presidential shortlist; now, he believes both the White House and his colleagues in Congress have become far too casual about waging war.
It’s an effort that at times pits Kaine against both an administration he supports and congressional colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
“We’re in the 14th month of an undeclared war that is based upon a legal justification that is specious, in my view,” Kaine said, addressing a top army general and undersecretary for defense during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Islamic State in mid-September.
“Congress has allowed it to happen,” he said then. “Now that we’ve been told the war is going to go on for years, my question is just to my colleagues: How long are we going to allow a president to wage an executive war without a congressional authorization?”
Kaine’s ambitions are go well beyond the current fight against the Islamic State: He wants to revisit the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which was supposed to limit overseas military action without Congressional approval to 60 days.
“Everyone now knows it’s a joke, it’s a complete joke,” Kaine said. His goal, he said, is “to rewrite the War Powers Resolution to what war is in the 21st century.”
He and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have introduced legislation replacing the 1973 law with a new version that strengthens requirements of Congressional approval. The proposal would require the president to consult with Congress within 7 days of major military action, create a permanent committee of congressional leaders on national security issues and require that all members take a vote on any significant action within a 30-day window.
Rather than seeking new authority to make war, the Obama administration is relying on a 2001 authorization for the use of military force, passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, to conduct military operations against the Islamic State and the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. That AUMF, the administration says, is legal justification for its actions in Syria and Iraq.
Kaine believes that AUMF has no legal bearing on the current situation. But his critics point out that new authorization or not, U.S. forces are already engaged in combat and, as a result, military strategy should take precedence over legal squabbling.
“I will say that wars are not won with paper resolutions,” quipped Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) in reply to Kaine’s plea at the same Armed Services hearing. “They are won with iron resolution.”
It’s a criticism Kaine has become all too familiar with.
“I’ve had a hard time trying to get people to take seriously this authorization,” he admitted in an interview in his Richmond office in this month.
For Kaine, the difficulty of fighting the so-called Islamic State in symptomatic of the Oval Office’s decades-long encroachment on foreign policy decision-making.
“You can look at the history of this and say: presidents overreach, and Congress has abdicated,” Kaine said. “But I think that history has produced some really bad results.”
His pursuit of a new, stricter AUMF is the result of two fundamentally intertwined but importantly distinct beliefs.
One the one hand, Kaine thinks Congress is obligated by the Constitution to play a role in developing and implementing foreign policy. In other words, Congress should have input.
Along those lines, Kaine thinks it is principally unfair to tell men and women to risk their lives in combat abroad but shirk from taking a politically tough vote at home.
“I think we’re afraid to touch this,” he said at the September Armed Services hearing. “If we’re not willing to do our constitutional duty, why are we here?”
But he also thinks – and this is perhaps the connection that is hardest for Kaine to make in an environment dominated by political expediency – that the legislative branch’s constitutional role, exercised consistently in a responsible way, can produce positive foreign policy outcomes on a systemic level, something that has eluded the executive branch in recent decades.
“When you have the debate, it sharpens the thinking of the administration,” he said. “We haven’t sat them down on the table and asked, what’s the endgame? What is your strategy in Syria to wage a war against ISIL in the middle of civil war where you’ve got Bashar al-Assad and al-Nusra front? What’s your strategy in working with the Syrian Kurds in the north when we’re also working with the Turks, who don’t like the Syrian Kurds?
“There’s no guarantee if Congress had a deliberate and thoughtful and careful debate and votes—there’s no guarantee that’s going to be perfectly wise or right,” he added. “But its more likely to communicate the message to our adversaries, our allies and especially our troops: OK, we’re in this together, and that’s an important thing to do.”
It’s a theory of congressional engagement that Kaine applies to issues beyond the war in Syria as well.
Kaine said his own staff initially pushed back against his decision to join Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) in drafting the early version of the Iran Review Act. That bill outlined the parameters under which Congress could approve or reject then-ongoing negotiations between the United States, its allies and Iran over the Gulf state’s nuclear program.
“Look, Congress is irresponsible, why would you want Congress to get involved?” he recalled his own staff arguing.
Simon Rosenberg, founder and president of the progressive New Democrat Network, said that the Iran Review Act had a positive impact on the nuclear deal, even for its supporters.
“I think in a lot of ways, the challenge that Congress made to the president on Iran has made him take his responsibility of selling this deal to the American public far more seriously,” he said in an interview, noticeably echoing Kaine’s argument for a new AUMF in Syria. “We’ve had a really good debate.”
“I recognize that people can look at Congress and say, boy we can kind of be skeptical about them as having some role in this,” Kaine said. “But I generally think that people and institutions live up to or live down to expectations.”
Kaine has positioned himself, consciously or unconsciously, at the head of a growing school of foreign policy thought that values coalition-building, both at home and abroad.
“If it’s about the promotion of values, we need to build alliances,” he said during the debate over the nuclear deal with Iran. “We’ll never ask permission to defend ourselves or our vital interests, but if it’s in terms of promoting things we need to build coalitions to do it.”
Indeed, the importance of resolving the Iran nuclear question with the support of Western allies came to be a focal point in many Democrats’ decision to support the deal. One after another, Kaine’s Senate Democratic colleagues issued lengthy statements explaining their decision to back the president’s negotiation. In almost all of them, supportive senators said rejecting the deal would leave major allies in the lurch, and America diplomatically isolated.
For Kaine, the issue of approving or rejecting the Iran nuclear deal represented a kind of litmus test for whether or not his fellow lawmakers considered diplomacy to be as important as projecting military force in the effort to promote U.S. priorities abroad.
“What people have realized, and now I think all realized, is that while there is terror still to fight, ‘War on Terror’ isn’t a big enough doctrine for a nation as great as ours,” he said. “It doesn’t incorporate our economic strength; it doesn’t incorporate our humanitarian effort; it doesn’t incorporate our diplomatic effort.”
Echoes of those ideas are found in a Foreign Affairs article co-authored by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) earlier this year. Framed as a “forward-looking and pragmatic principles that should guide U.S. foreign policy,” the three young Democrats called for “a new Marshall Plan for at-risk regions,” underlined the importance of pursuing international objectives with allied backing, and “advocated reaching beyond the military budget to rediscover the power of non-kinetic statecraft.”
In a nod to Kaine’s efforts, the authors argued that Congress should demand “specific and achievable objectives and timelines” from military and civilian leaders.
“Congress should not allow broad authorizations for war, such as the 9/11 Authorization of Military Force, to exist in perpetuity simply because it is afraid to debate new, narrower war resolutions,” they wrote.
“I think Kaine really matters,” Rosenberg said. “He understands that this isn’t about any one individual tactical fight. It’s really about the U.S. Congress taking responsibility for charting a course for the U.S. in an uncertain age. It’s a much bigger struggle, I think, than what it’s being represented.”