Obama’s AUMF Is After the Fact, Beside the Point

Posted February 11, 2015 at 2:08pm

President Barack Obama sent Congress today a legislative proposal that purports to approve war against the Islamic State while limiting the U.S. role in the conflict. It does neither.

The president’s draft resolution will be robustly debated in the weeks ahead, but it will have little impact on the conduct of military operations.

When enacted, and it probably will be, its value will lie solely in its rhetorical demonstration of congressional support for the war.

The existing reality of American action in Iraq and Syria and the ambiguity of the proposed text justify those assertions.

The resolution would expire in three years. But no resolution was needed for the president to start a war that’s been going on for six months. Why would an expiration — if Congress let that happen — stop it? Even Obama has said he doesn’t need the very resolution he’s proposing.

Second, the measure does not limit the war, which the administration purports, despite it being in both parties’ interest to say so, albeit with different spins.

Republicans, who are interested in depicting the president as weak, have already begun to describe the proposal as Obama “tying his own hands,” as House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas said in a statement today.

Democratic leaders are likely to act as if the restrictions are meaningful and useful, perhaps after a face-saving attempt at making the resolution more limiting. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., today called the president’s proposal “serious and thoughtful.”

The reality is, while Obama might choose to continue to limit how the military fights the Islamic State, it will be because he wants to, not because the resolution directs him to.

The key provision that Congress will focus on is one that would bar “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”

In order to be off limits, the operations have to be four things simultaneously: offensive, enduring, on the ground and officially defined as combat, as opposed to advising and assisting Iraqis, for example.

None of these terms are defined in the draft, even as another term is: the “associated forces” of the Islamic State.

There is no agreed upon military definition of these terms, starting with “enduring.” Broad and vague as the modifiers are, their definition is in the eye of the beholder.

The White House wanted it that way: appearing to limit the operation without actually cutting off options.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest confirmed as much, saying the language was intentionally vague. The president wants flexibility to deal with future contingencies and not a “checklist” of “loopholes” allowing the use of ground forces, he said.

In reality, Obama has restricted what the military can do on the ground in Iraq and Syria to advising, training and equipping native forces, even as U.S. warplanes pound the militants from above. But that has been his decision, not Congress’s. If he should choose to expand U.S. operations to include direct fighting on the front lines, nothing in the resolution appears specific enough to prevent that.

Obama, in a letter sent to Congress today along with the draft resolution, said the measure is not intended to support “long-term, large-scale ground combat operations.” He said he would like the authorization — he was careful not to say he needs it — to pursue other missions: “rescue operations involving U.S. or coalition personnel or the use of special operations forces to take military action against ISIL leadership.” Also included: “intelligence collection and sharing, missions to enable kinetic strikes, or the provision of operational planning and other forms of advice and assistance to partner forces.”

Those operations could put U.S. troops in harm’s way on or close to the front lines. But the resolution does not say anything about those missions, let alone about them being the only allowable ones. Limiting US operations to those tasks may be the president’s plan as of today, but the resolution wouldn’t require it.

Initial Reaction

In Congress, members of the president’s own party immediately began to talk about tightening the language, but weren’t any more precise than the resolution itself.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. a member of Armed Services, issued a statement this morning that he is concerned about the “breadth and vagueness of the U.S. ground troop language” and said he will “seek to clarify it.”

Likewise, Adam B. Schiff, the top Democrat on House Intelligence, said in a statement that the authorization should be amended to “place more specific limits on the use of ground troops to ensure we do not authorize another major ground war without the President coming to Congress to make the case for one.”

Schiff also argued that the 2001 authorization for war in Afghanistan should be repealed so it is not cited as authority for new operations. The president’s draft resolution would repeal the 2002 Iraq War authorization but not the Afghanistan one.

But narrowing allowable military operations as Kaine and Schiff would like is difficult for lawmakers to do without restricting military options. And while lawmakers will try to enact more circumscribed language, they will probably fail, because Congress has traditionally been reticent to be prescriptive about what the commander in chief can do on the battlefield.

The new authorization would be important not as a binding congressional exercise of its war powers, but as “an important signal of support to DoD personnel, of commitment to our partners, and of resolve to ISIL,” as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called it in a statement today, using an acronym for the Islamic State.