On ISIL: A conversation with U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) since June has been a consistent voice calling for both a measured offensive and congressional approval in the fluid U.S. confrontation with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Kaine recently spoke with the Times-Mirror on the ISIL threat and the White House's handling of the situation. Here are some highlights from the interview.
On congressional involvement in dealing with ISIL:
Kaine: In my view, this is a mission that requires congressional authorization. I've really been pushing the White House and, frankly, even a little more, my congressional colleagues, that this mission is of a scope that is not covered by the president's Article II Constitutional Powers of Defense or any of the previous authorizations Congress has passed. It is, by the administration's own description, a new war – a war against ISIL. That means we need a congressional authorization.
I wish we would've taken a congressional vote before we started the airstrike campaign, like the British Parliament did. I think there will be a congressional debate and vote, it's just going to be a little later than I wish.
We were back in session for two weeks, and we didn't have to recess this early for the mid-terms. Why didn't we deal with full debate? I think we should have … If I have to assign culpability here, I'm going to put more than 50 percent of the culpability on Congress. This Congress is often one not to vote on hard issues. We should all have to declare whether we're in support of this mission.
The president said he would welcome the authorization. He hasn't demanded that Congress do it. He said he would welcome it. The real issue is whether Congress will step up to its responsibilities.
On President Obama's frustration with Congress as it relates to ISIL:
Kaine: I understand the president and the White House's feelings on this, but ultimately I'm not sympathetic. This is the system we signed up for … Has every president been frustrated with Congress? Yes. But that doesn't mean you get to say, 'Well, I'm just going to act as if there were no Constitutional checks and balances.' We have a system that imposes checks and balances between the president and the Congress.
Just like members of Congress, we get mad when courts strike down laws we write. That frustrates us. But that's the system we have. We can't ignore that kind of a check and balance.
On the mission and multi-national partnerships:
Kaine: I think the president did a good job in the speech two weeks ago on what the mission should involve, and I thought the speech at the U.N. was also very strong.
It's a four-point mission: humanitarian relief; airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against ISIL; a willingness to do counter-terrorism operations against ISIL leadership wherever we find them; and then it's arming the ground forces from the region – the Iraqi security force, the Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, the Syrian opposition. We would provide training and assistance to ground troops in the region.
Those four pieces, as long as they're done as part of a multi-national coalition, are very reasonable.
On the ISIL threat and the fear of fighters traveling to the U.S. or western nations in Europe:
Kaine: People are right to be fearful. That's why I support the mission that the president outlined. I'm looking forward to voting for it with some appropriate limitations.
I will say there are some things we can do on the foreign fighters, as well. There is some passport monitoring and restrictions that I think we can put in place that will help us track people who travel to that part of the world. There are some things separately from an authorization of war that will enable us to better protect ourselves from foreign fighters, and we should be doing those things too.
ISIL is a significant, growing threat, but it's not the kind of imminent threat where a president has to act because if he waits they're going to attack the U.S. before Congress is back in session.
On a permanent U.S. presence in the Middle East:
Kaine: I don't think we need a permanent presence against the will of people … We're not there to occupy anybody.
What seems to me to be a positive sign is the degree of partners that are signing on, and especially partners in the region. For too long in the past, these kinds of extremists have been essentially tolerated in the region. There has been an unwillingness to publicly stand up against extremism in the region.
One of the things that's most hopeful is that in these airstrikes you've seen the involvement of Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, there's a chance Turkey will be significantly involved. Instead of us being a permanent presence there, by far it's a better long-term goal, what we hope, is that the region will stand up against extremism. To the extent they do that, we'll be their partner.