Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against ISIL

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Testimony Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Washington, DC
December 9, 2014

Well, Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member Corker and all of my former colleagues, it really is a pleasure for me to be back before the Foreign Relations Committee. During my time here, I think we got some things right and we certainly wound up wishing we’d done some things differently. But I think most of us would agree – and I saw it during both parties’ chairmanships, including the years that Senator Lugar and I were here – that this committee works best and makes the greatest contribution to our foreign policy and our country when it addresses the most important issues in a strong bipartisan fashion.

And this is one of those issues. The chairman and the ranking member have both said that. This is one of the moments when a bipartisan approach really is critical.

As you know, the President is committed to engaging with the committee and all of your colleagues in the House and Senate regarding a new authorization for use of military force – as we call it in short, the AUMF – specifically against the terrorist group known as ISIL, though in the region is it called Daesh, and specifically because they believe very deeply it is not a state and it does not represent Islam.

So we are looking for this authorization with respect to efforts against Daesh and affiliated groups, and I want to thank Chairman Menendez and the entire committee for leading the effort in Congress and for all of the important work that you have already done on this complicated and challenging issue. It is important that this committee lead the Congress and the country, and I think you know I believe that.

Now, I realize we may not get there overnight. I’ve heard the ranking member’s comments just now, and we understand the clock. We certainly won’t resolve everything and get there this afternoon, in the next few hours. But I do think this discussion is important, and I think we all agree that this discussion has to conclude with a bipartisan vote that makes clear that this is not one party’s fight against Daesh, but rather that it reflects our united determination to degrade and ultimately defeat Daesh. And the world needs to understand that from the United States Congress, above all.

Our coalition partners need to know that from all of you, and the men and women of our armed forces deserve to know it from all of you. And Daesh’s cadre of killers and rapists and bigots need to absolutely understand it clearly. That’s why this matters.

Now toward that end, we ask you now to work closely with us on a bipartisan basis to develop language that provides a clear signal of support for our ongoing military operations against Daesh. Our position on the text is really pretty straightforward. The authorization, or AUMF, should give the President the clear mandate and flexibility he needs to successfully prosecute the armed conflict against Daesh and affiliated forces, but the authorization should also be limited and specific to the threat posed by that group and by forces associated with it.

Now, I’ll come back to the question of the AUMF in a minute. But we believe that as we embark on this important discussion context matters. All of us want to see the United States succeed and all of us want to see Daesh defeated, so we’re united on that. And I want to bring the committee up to date on precisely where our campaign now stands.

Mr. Chairman, less than three months ago – perhaps two and a half months, a little more – have passed since the international community came together in a coalition, whose purpose is to degrade and defeat Daesh. Two and a half months ago, it didn’t exist – not it, Daesh, but the coalition – and the 60 countries that assembled recently in Brussels. We organized, and I had the privilege of chairing the first ministerial-level meeting of the coalition last week in Brussels.

We heard Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi describe to us the effort that his leadership team is making to bring Iraqis together, strengthen their security forces, take the fight to Daesh, and improve and reform governance. We also heard General John Allen, our special envoy to the coalition, review the progress that is being made in the five lines of coalition effort: to shrink the territory controlled by Daesh, to cut off its financing, to block its recruitment of foreign fighters, to expose the hypocrisy of its absurd religious claims, and to provide humanitarian aid to the victims of its violence.

During the meeting, I have to tell you, I was particularly impressed by the leadership activism, and quite frankly, the anger towards Daesh that is being displayed by Arab and Muslim states. Governments that do not always agree on other issues are coming together in opposition to this profoundly anti-Islamic terrorist organization.

And now, to be clear, ISIL continues to commit serious vicious crimes and it still controls more territory than al-Qaida ever did. It will be years, not months, before it is defeated. We know that. But our coalition is measurably already making a difference.

To date, we have launched more than 1,150 today air strikes against Daesh. These operations have reduced its leadership, undermined its propaganda, squeezed its resources, damaged its logistical and operational capabilities, and compelled it to disperse its forces and change its tactics. It is becoming clear that the combination of coalition airstrikes and local ground partners is a potent one. In fact, virtually every time a local Iraqi force has worked in coordination with our air cover they have not only defeated Daesh, they have routed it.

In Iraq, progress also continues in the political arena. And this is no less important, frankly. Last week, after years of intensive efforts, the government in Baghdad reached an interim accord with the Kurdistan Regional Government on hydrocarbon exports and revenue sharing. That has been long sought after, and it’s a big deal that they got it. It’s good for the country’s economy, but it’s even better for its unity and stability and for the imprint of the direction that they’re moving in.

In addition, a new defense minister is a Sunni, whose appointment was an important step towards a more inclusive government. And with his leadership and that of the new interior minister, the process of reforming the nation’s security forces has a genuine chance for success.

Meanwhile, the prime minister is taking bold steps to improve relations with his country’s neighbors. And those neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey, have been responding. Now, I want to underscore it’s too early to declare a new era in regional relations, but countries that had been drifting apart or even in conflict with each other are now in the process of coming together and breaking down the barriers that were created. And that is helpful to our coalition and it is bad news for Daesh.

Beating back the threat that Daesh poses to Iraq is job number one for our Iraqi partners and for our coalition. But even if the government in Baghdad fulfills its responsibilities, it is still going to face a dire challenge because of the events in Syria.

Now, if you recall, the coalition’s decision to carry out airstrikes in Syria came in response to a request from Iraq for help in defending against Daesh’s brazen attack. To date, we and our Arab partners have conducted over 500 airstrikes in Syria, targeting areas where Daesh had concentrated its fighters, targeting on command and control nodes, finance centers, training camps, and oil refineries. Our objective is to further degrade Daesh’s capabilities and to deny it the freedom of movement and resupply that it has previously enjoyed.

At the same time, we will continue to build up the capabilities of the moderate opposition. And here I want to thank the members of this committee and many others in Congress who have supported these efforts and supported them very strongly. Our goal is to help the moderate forces stabilize areas under their control, defend civilians, empower them to go on the offensive against Daesh, and promote the conditions for a negotiated political transition, recognizing, as I think almost every person has said, there is no military solution.

Now, Mr. Chairman, we all know that Daesh is a threat to America’s security and interests. It poses an unacceptable danger to our personnel and facilities in Iraq and elsewhere. It seeks to destroy both the short and long-term stability of the broader Middle East. And it is exacerbating a refugee crisis that has placed extraordinary economic and political burden on our friends and allies in the region.

One thing is certain: Daesh will continue to spread until or unless it is stopped. So there should be no question that we, with our partners, have a moral duty and a profound international security interest and national security interest in stopping them.

That is where the fight against Daesh now stands. A coalition that two and a half months ago did not even exist is now taking the fight to the enemy. It was cobbled together by strong American leadership and by steady, intensive diplomacy with countries that disagree on many things but all share an aversion to extremism. Now I think all of you would agree we need to summon that same determination to find the common ground here in Washington.

That is why in the hours, days, and weeks to come, we’re determined to work with you, first and foremost to develop an approach that can generate broad bipartisan support, while ensuring that the President has the flexibility to successfully prosecute this effort. That’s the balance.

What do we envision, specifically regarding an AUMF? Importantly – and I think I will lay out today a very clear set of principles that I hope will be instructive – we do not think an AUMF should include a geographic limitation. We don’t anticipate conducting operations in countries other than Iraq or Syria; but to the extent that ISIL poses a threat to American interests and personnel in other countries, we would not want an AUMF to constrain our ability to use appropriate force against ISIL in those locations if necessary. In our view, it would be a mistake to advertise to ISIL that there are safe havens for them outside of Iraq or Syria.

On the issue of combat operations, I know this is hotly debated, as it ought to be and as it is, with passionate and persuasive arguments on both sides. 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 and that will be the responsibility of local forces, because that is what our local partners and allies want, that is what we learned works best in the context of our Iraq experience, that is what is best for preserving our coalition, and most importantly, it is in the best interest of the United States.

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 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.

And finally, with respect to duration, we can be sure that this confrontation is not going to be over quickly, as the President and I have said many times. We understand, however, the desire of many to avoid a completely open-ended authorization. And I note that Chairman Menendez has suggested that a three-year limitation should be put into an AUMF. We support that proposal, but we support it subject to a provision that we should work through together that provides for extension in the event that circumstances require it. And we think it ought to be advertised as such upfront.

To sum up, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, I ask for your help in, above all, approving on a bipartisan basis – with the strongest vote possible, because everybody will read messages into that vote – an Authorization for Use of Military Force in connection with our campaign and that of our many partners in order to defeat a terrible, vicious, different kind of enemy.

Almost a quarter-century ago, when I here, then a 47-year-old senator with certainly a darker head of hair, President George H.W. Bush sent his Secretary of State James Baker to ask this committee for the authority to respond militarily to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The country was divided. Congress was divided. But this committee drafted an authorization and it passed the Congress with a majority that the New York Times described as “decisive and bipartisan.” And armed with that mandate, Secretary Baker built the coalition that won the First Gulf War.

Now, that was a different time and it was a different conflict and it called for a different response. But it was also this body – this committee and then the Senate – at its bipartisan best. And what we need from you today to strengthen and unify our own coalition is exactly that kind of cooperative effort. The world will be watching what we together are willing and able to do. And this is obviously not a partisan issue; it’s a leadership issue. It’s a test of our government’s ability and our nation’s ability to stand together. It’s a test of our generation’s resolve to build a safer and more secure world. And I know every single one of you wants to defeat ISIL. A bold, bipartisan mandate would strengthen our hand, and I hope that today you can move closer to that goal.

So thank you and I’m pleased to answer any questions.