The Buzz

On ISIS AUMF, Washington Post Strikes Out

Although it took over four months for the U.S. Congress to act, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee finally did their due diligence during the last week of the 113th Congress, passing an ISIL-specific authorization for the use of military force along a strict 10-8 party-line vote.  The resolution reported out of the committee—which establishes a 3-year time limit for President Obama and his successor to conduct combat operations against the terrorist group—is dead in the water and could possibly be replaced by a new authorization this month, now that Republicans are in full control of the Senate.

There is a lot to critique in the resolution, including whether it provides the commander-in-chief with enough resources and flexibility to take on ISIL.  U.S. ground troops, for instance, are prohibited except for very narrow missions and circumstances, such as the rescue of U.S. personnel, the collection of intelligence, “enabling kinetic strikes,” and presumably spotting U.S. airstrikes on ISIL targets.

Yet, like all legislation produced by a divided government, the AUMF is a compromise between Republicans like Senators John McCain and Marco Rubio who want virtually unlimited authority for the Commander-in-Chief, and Democrats like Robert Menendez and Tim Kaine who fear another open-ended resolution similar to the 2001 authorization against al-Qaeda.

The Washington Post editorial board is one of those entities complaining about the Foreign Relations Committee’s final product, and the paper is casting its lot with the McCain/Rubio camp.  Before rightly admonishing congressional Republicans and the Obama administration for battling each other over who should make the first move, last month’s editorial openly questions whether the Foreign Relations Committee tied the president’s hands behind his back.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), one of the few in Congress to push hard for an authorizing vote, argues that if U.S. troops were needed to head off an attack on the United States — the circumstance Mr. Obama has cited that would alter his own opposition to combat forces — the president could act under his constitutional authority. That dodges the more simple and sensible conclusion that Congress’s role is to authorize wars and their aims, not micromanage how they are waged.”

Hawkish Republicans would no doubt agree with this conclusion, particularly when the enemy that the United States is fighting has no compunction of rounding up and executing hundreds of people and selling young girls as sex slaves.  Yet, with that fact aside, is The Post accurate when they argue that Congress should simply authorize war, and not micromanage its conduct?  Contemporary history would suggest that it’s not: the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, which essentially granted the president broad, if not unlimited, authority to wage an armed conflict are an aberration, not the rule.

Below is a short list of AUMFs that Congress has drafted and passed over the past thirty years.  Some were signed into law by the president at the time, others were passed through committee but not taken up by the full House and Senate, and another (in the case of Somalia in 1993) was passed by both houses of Congress but not signed into law.  As you will see, each of these authorizations contains conditions, restrictions, and limits on the president’s use of force, including how long force can be used and what the president can and cannot do with U.S. ground troops.  Congress, in other words, considers “micromanaging” part of the job description.

- Multinational Force in Lebanon Resolution (October 12, 1983): Acting under its Article I, Section 8 powers, Congress passed this resolution in order to authorize continued U.S. military involvement in the Multinational Force in Lebanon, which at the time was attempting to hold the tiny, coastal Arab country together amidst a raging ethnic and sectarian civil war.  Under the resolution, however, U.S. soldiers on Lebanese soil were prohibited from going beyond the peacekeeping and stabilization role requested by the Government of Lebanon.  And, like the 3-year timetable that the Foreign Relations Committee included in the ISIL AUMF last month—which The Post so vehemently disagrees with—the 1983 resolution cuts off U.S. involvement in Lebanon after 18 months.  Like all time restrictions, the 18-month provision assured that Congress would have the power to evaluate whether more U.S. involvement was required to complete the mission or whether the strategy needed to change in order to accomplish the objective.

- Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution (January 14, 1991): The resolution that kicked off Operation Desert Storm, signed by President George H.W. Bush 48 hours before major coalition operations against Saddam Hussein began, was only two pages long.  But even this resolution placed limitations on the commander-in-chief: