Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) released a statement, following President Obama's ISIS speech, in which he mixed backhanded praise ("finally," Obama!) with nebulous criticism (the president's plan is not an "all-out effort to destroy" ISIS) that didn't explain what he thought should be done differently.
Boehner held a press conference Thursday afternoon to outline the House GOP response to Obama's ISIS speech, and while Boehner kept referring to his statement from last night, the majority of the presser was spent agreeing with the president and pledging support. In between, some of the criticisms took (still-nebulous) shape, and if they are actually what they appear to be, then Obama and Boehner don't really disagree on anything at all.
The news from this press conference is as follows (full video is at the end of the post):
The House will actually vote on something! Namely, the president's request for Title 10 authorization to train and equip Syrian rebels.
The House GOP will support that request. "Frankly, we ought to give the president what he's asking for," Boehner said.
Boehner agrees with the White House's assessment of the FSA. "Based on all the information that I've looked at, the Free Syrian Army has, by and large, been very well vetted by our intelligence officials," he said.
These are all important, because they cut off various avenues through which Republicans can later attack the president politically, and they also serve to isolate the areas of seeming disagreement. Boehner also said that training the FSA could take years, and ISIS' progress "must be halted and reversed immediately," but without explaining exactly how. This could mean he wants more ground troops, or an explicit set of plans for airstrikes, or both. Boehner was asked why he doesn't write a resolution of his own, authorizing whatever it is Boehner thinks is missing. Boehner's response was, essentially, because that's why:
"Typically, in my time here in Congress, that's not how this has happened. The president would make that request, and the president would supply the language for the resolution."
As it relates to airstrikes (and to a lesser extent, some ground forces), there's a simple and obvious reason the president hasn't asked for authorization to conduct airstrikes in Syria, a reason that underscores just how serious he is about conducting them. The president has consistently said he doesn't need authorization to conduct such strikes, and in a conference call with reporters yesterday, a senior administration official explained that "We believe that he can rely on the 2001 AUMF as statutory authority for the military airstrike operations he is directing against ISIL, for instance. And we believe that he has the authority to continue these operations beyond 60 days, consistent with the War Powers Resolution, because the operations are authorized by a statute."
By asking Congress for such authorization, the president could cede the authority he's now claiming, but there is absolutely nothing preventing Congress from offering such an authorization, other than political cowardice. This administration has also already demonstrated its belief that it can authorize at least some ground operations in Syria, by virtue of the attempted rescue of James Foley in July.
Elsewhere in the presser, though, Boehner seems to accept that there will be airstrikes, and that they're not enough. "An F-16 is not a strategy," he said, "and airstrikes alone will not accomplish what we're trying to accomplish."
He then turned into Obama's passive-aggressive girlfriend, noting, "And the president's made clear that he doesn't want U.S. boots on the ground. Well, somebody's boots have to be on the ground. I believe what the president has asked for, as the commander-in-chief, the authority to train these Syrian rebels. frankly, we ought to give the president what he's asking for."
Later, he was asked, point blank, if he thought the president was "wrong to take U.S. combat troops on the ground in Syria off the table right now?"
Boehner's answer sounded a lot like the criticisms Obama took when he promised to go get bin Laden:
"Listen, we only have one Commander-in-Chief. He laid out his plan. I would never tell the enemy what I was willing to do, or unwilling to do. But he is the Commander-in-Chief. He made that decision."
Boehner's still not saying we should have ground troops, just that we shouldn't say we won't use ground troops out loud. Not incidentally, while saying he would never tell the enemy what he was willing or unwilling to do, he was actually doing that very thing, which is a good reason to be glad he's not the commandeer-in-chief.
First of all, of course you tell your enemy those things, all the time, you just don't necessarily tell them the truth. Secondly, the enemy isn't the president's only audience, and if he dangled the possibility of a heavy US ground involvement in Iraq and Syria, what incentive would powers in the region have to contribute to the effort? And finally, ground troops (or anything else, for that matter) are only off the table until they are on the table. That's the whole point of the phrase "mission creep."
As I said before, we've already had boots on the ground in Syria, and the president has steadily given himself more and more wiggle room to define what "boots on the ground" actually means. It makes no political or strategic sense to telegraph ground operations at this point, but there will definitely be ground operations, and they will be defined down, as needed, for as long as possible.
Boehner talks a good game about wanting the president to put forward a resolution of his own, but that's only because it's safe for him to do so. The last thing anyone on Congress wants to do is make an actual decision if they can possibly avoid it.
Here's video of the full press conference: