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Debate begins on scope of US-led war against ISIS

President Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, spoke about the Islamic State group Wednesday.
President Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, spoke about the Islamic State group Wednesday.Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s request for Congress to authorize the US-led military campaign against the Islamic State ran into a barrage of opposition Wednesday from both sides of the aisle.

Opponents in his own party said as written it could draw US ground troops into a civil war, while Republicans who control both the Senate and the House insisted the wording does not give the military sufficient tools to win. Both sides seized on the resolution’s reference that any US ground combat would not be “enduring,” saying it was overly vague.

After months of delay, Obama sent to Capitol Hill a two-page resolution authorizing what he called “the limited use” of US armed forces to confront the radical Islamic group that has been the target of US-led airstrikes since it seized large parts of Syria and Iraq last summer.

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The careful language in the proposed authorization appeared to be crafted to placate antiwar Democrats who fear handing the president or his successor a blank check to engage in another open-ended war. But it was also intended to avoid tying the hands of military officials.

Given the swift criticism, the resolution appeared unlikely to pass in its current form, setting the stage for weeks of hearings and debate, according to lawmakers and analysts.

“What we have today may not resemble in any way what we will be voting on,” said Representative Bill Keating, a Bourne Democrat and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. “This is very difficult to draft, because you have people on many sides.”

Keating said he would not support the authorization in its current form, echoing concerns that it could allow US troops to be drawn back into a Middle East war.

The resolution as proposed would replace the one approved by Congress in 2002 to authorize the US-led invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.

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The new proposal would also authorize Obama to use the military to confront the Islamic State “or associated persons or forces.”

The resolution does not limit the US military action to Iraq and Syria, leaving open the possibility of using military force against the group in other countries. It sets a deadline to expire in three years, when Congress would have to review the authority.

But much of the opposition on both sides of the aisle centered on how the resolution addresses the possible use of combat troops. While Obama has said repeatedly he does not intend to insert US troops directly into the fight, the proposed war resolution states that ground troops would not be used “in enduring offensive ground combat operations.”

The debate quickly centered on what that means. Some Democrats said it could open a back door to the possible use of large numbers of American ground troops for a limited period of time.

Obama has already approved the deployment of about 3,000 military advisers to Iraq.

“I have grave concerns about this,” said Representative Stephen Lynch, a South Boston Democrat who has traditionally been more hawkish than his fellow Bay State lawmakers.

Lynch, who has recently traveled to the region, said he worries that the way it is worded “we could put 100,000 troops on the ground for a year or two.”

He said he also opposes the measure because he is concerned the renewed efforts to train and arm Iraqis and so-called moderate Syrian rebels are destined to fail.

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He cited the efforts to train nearly one million Iraqi security forces earlier in the decade at a cost of $25 billion, only to see them flee in the face of the Islamic State onslaught.

“Now we are going to do the same thing again in a shorter period of time with less money,” he said. As for the Syrian rebels, “they are not moderate and neither are they a competent or cohesive group of fighters.’’

Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, a Democrat from Brookline, raised similar concerns. He said the proposed resolution is too broad because it doesn’t sufficiently limit where the US military can be used to confront the group or how.

“I have strong reservations about what that could potentially mean,” he said in an interview.

He added that he was also disappointed the measure did not call for repealing the authorization for the use of military force that was passed immediately after the 2001 terrorist attacks. That resolution, he said, was not intended to be used to justify an open-ended war against an Islamic terrorist group in countless countries.

Similar views about the new proposal were expressed by leading Senate Democrats.

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy said he supports fighting Islamic State “but we must do so in a way that avoids repeating the missteps of the past and that does not result in an open-ended authorization that becomes legal justification for future actions against unknown enemies, in unknown places, at unknown times.”

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Both Democratic senators from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, vowed to scrutinize the authorization. Markey said he needed assurances that an approval of the authorization would not lead to an open-ended war or “unfettered deployment of ground troops with no stated exit strategy.”

Others complained that the proposed resolution was too limiting.

“Any authorization for the use of military force must give our military commanders the flexibility and authorities they need to succeed and protect our people,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement, adding he has “concerns that the president’s request does not meet this standard.’’

Indeed, even some who expressed zero willingness to back any US-led military operation agreed that the proposal came across as a half-hearted attempt.

“If you are going to go to war, go to war,” said Representative Michael Capuano, a Cambridge Democrat. “I am not prepared to vote for that. But I won’t vote for a limited war, either. That is a recipe for a disaster.”


Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender.