Obama's ISIS AUMF: A Convenient (But Necessary) Excuse

The only time the president asked Congress for its blessing to go to war was to give him an excuse to avoid taking strong action.

When President Obama declared last September that he would "degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy" without the use of American ground combat troops, most observers were skeptical. Now, five months later, the president is asking Congress to authorize him to dramatically escalate the fight, including the use of ground combat troops, ostensibly in very limited numbers with a very limited mission for a limited period of time. In fact, it’s likely to lead to expanded American involvement.

Wednesday morning the White House released a letter from the president to the Congress declaring, "Although existing statutes provide me with the authority I need to take these actions, I have repeatedly expressed my commitment to working with the Congress to pass a bipartisan authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIL. Consistent with this commitment, I am submitting a draft AUMF that would authorize the continued use of military force to degrade and defeat ISIL."

The text of the draft "Joint Resolution: To authorize the limited use of the United States Armed Forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" declares that said authority " does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations" and "shall terminate three years after the date of the enactment of this joint resolution, unless reauthorized." But it does expand the mission to "associated persons or forces," which it defines as "individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners."

Wednesday afternoon, Obama gave a very short speech stating that, while the ongoing operations against ISIL are going swimmingly— “We're disrupting their command and control and supply lines, making it harder for them to move. We're destroying their fighting positions, their tanks, their vehicles, their barracks, their training camps, and the oil and gas facilities and infrastructure that fund their operations. We're taking out their commanders, their fighters, and their leaders”— and "our coalition is on the offensive, ISIL is on the defensive, and ISIL is going to lose," we need "flexibility" for "unforeseen circumstances" and "continuity."

Returning to the Constitutional requirement that non-emergency military action be authorized by Congress is a good idea. It’s a position Obama articulated passionately during his brief tenure in the Senate and as a presidential candidate. Yet, it's worth noting that, since assuming the Oval Office, Obama has been as aggressive as any of his predecessors in finding ways around that inconvenience when it suits him. Aside from wildly escalating the drone war around the globe, during the Libya campaign in 2011 Obama ignored even the modest restrictions imposed on him by the War Powers Resolution, simply declaring that the combat sorties American forces were flying weren't "hostilities." The only time he's actually asked Congress for its blessing to go to war was to give him an excuse to avoid taking strong action against Syria's Assad for crossing the "red line" of chemical weapons use.

Regardless of the apparent hypocrisy, getting Congress involved is not only consistent with the law of the land but it's also shrewd politically and important strategically. Self-serving or not, Obama is right when he declares, "we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together." If we're to get more heavily involved in this fight against ISIL, there ought to be a public debate and bipartisan approval.

Indeed, this may well be one of those rare times where Congressional Republicans are enthusiastically on his side while Obama's co-partisans constitute the opposition. So far, the main objection prominent Republicans are offering is that Obama is expanding the war too slowly and asking for too little power for himself.

Senator John McCain declared that any AUMF "should not constrain the president of the United States, and it should not be specific to ISIS. He was elected by the American people. The Constitution of the United States says that he is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. We cannot set the precedent of constraining the president of the United States." Without apparent irony, the man who spent seven years being tortured in a Vietnamese prison camp explained, "If we don't like what the president is doing, all we have to do is cut off the funding. We did that after the Vietnam War was over."