Congress Shifts Attention to America’s Role in the World (New York Times)

WASHINGTON — The Paris attacks and the escalation of military action in Syria have thrust national security to the forefront of congressional concerns, pushing aside domestic issues that have dominated Capitol Hill for years.

This week, lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have introduced legislation that would impose new visa restrictions on visitors who have traveled to Syria or Iraq. That effort comes on the heels of a measure passed by the House to halt a Syrian refugee program.

Lawmakers are also considering measures to address the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, domestic surveillance and the power of Congress to authorize war. In his first major speech as speaker of the House on Thursday, Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin is expected to focus far more heavily on national security than was planned before the terror attacks in Paris last month. And that mass shootings in San Bernardino, California, where authorities have not ruled out terrorism, are certain to amplify the debate.


“The issues drive what we do here,” said Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia. “Americans are legitimately afraid for their own security and the security of the United States. Most people in Congress feel we need a coordinated plan.”


The politics of national security remain difficult. The shadow of the Iraq war hangs over bipartisan efforts to authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State. Since World War II, such authorizations have largely been pursued in concert with the White House, but Republican antipathy toward President Obama has made many congressional efforts confrontational.


Republicans are working to balance their hawkish policy inclinations with their distrust of Mr. Obama, while Democrats are weighing their desire to support the president against a liberal base and nervous voters hostile toward more military conflict.


“Politics no longer stop at the water’s edge,” said Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a member of the Benghazi Select Committee. “Now they just begin with a new ferocity.”


In some ways, the new focus is a matter of the congressional calendar. The end-of-year passage of the annual defense policy bill frames the military and foreign-policy priorities of Congress, especially those of the party in control. That has focused attention on issues such as what to do about Guantánamo Bay and the conflict in Ukraine.


The terrorist attacks in Paris have prompted Republicans in Congress to move swiftly to squelch the already slow flow of Syrian refugees, but at the same time, a cybersecurity bill has lingered in the Senate for months.


“We are becoming more aware of the threats and increasing growth of the Islamic State,” said Nora Bensahel, a military policy analyst at American University’s School of International Service. “They have demonstrated that they have the capability of targeting the West. So it is both a natural time of year and these disturbing events that have helped push things in Congress.”


This week, Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, introduced a measure with Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, to deny visa waiver privileges enjoyed by citizens of 38 friendly countries to travelers who have visited Syria or Iraq in the past five years. The hope is that a tightening of visa waiver rules would prevent terrorist infiltration far more effectively than tougher screening of refugees. The House is working on a similar bipartisan bill.


Last month, the House voted overwhelmingly to tighten screeningprocedures on refugees from Syria, a vote that won significant support from Democrats. The Senate is expected to take up the measure soon.


Even a matter that had seemed resolved — the shutting down of some components of the Patriot Act — is being targeted in new ways by Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, six months after the changes were signed into law.


The divisions are not cleanly partisan. Military hawks in both parties are squaring off against privacy advocates, both Republican and Democratic.


“There has been much more conflict between Congress and the president historically than working in concert,” said Donald A. Ritchie, the historian emeritus of the Senate, citing the fight over treaties like John Jay’s Treatyof the late 1700s, which was designed to settle outstanding issues between America and Britain.


“During the 1930s the isolationists and interventionists fought over Europe, and Congress gave President Roosevelt a very hard time,” Mr. Ritchie said, “although that was snuffed out by the attack on Pearl Harbor.”


That attack established a pattern of Congress supporting the president when it came to foreign policy with national security implications, he said, that lasted until the Vietnam War.


Congress’s engagement with the brutal civil war in Syria — both against the Islamic State and the government of President Bashar al-Assad — has been episodic at best. When pressed to take actual votes, members in both parties have resisted.


In the fall of 2013, Mr. Obama sought congressional authorization to launch airstrikes against the Assad government to punish it for using chemical weapons against civilians. Opposition was bipartisan, and theresolution was pulled before it could be defeated.


A year later, after the Islamic State’s high-profile beheadings of American hostages, lawmakers clamored for a military response but again demurred on accepting a role.


Advocates of a formal authorization of military force got nowhere because Republicans said Mr. Obama’s version of a force resolution was too constrained, and that they could not trust him with a broader declaration of war.


Many Democrats, still smarting from votes to authorize the war in Iraq over a decade ago, feared any authorization would escalate into another war in the Middle East.


The result was a limited measure to train and arm Syrian rebels, tucked into a bill to keep the government funded.


Some members of Congress have tried to bridge this gap and push for an authorization of military force, but have largely come up empty. “We ought to reassert ourselves,” said Senator Flake of Arizona. “Up here we do a lot of complaining about the president and when we have a role to play it baffles me that we don’t take it.”


The focus on national security is likely to continue on Capitol Hill throughout next year, and spill into the presidential campaign.


“External events have precipitated this focus on national security,” said Robert Litwak, the director of International Security Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “But underlying these events are big questions about America’s role in the world and what is within our ability to control.”

Source: New York Times