WASHINGTON — Congress is poised to authorize the use of military force for the first time in nearly 13 years after President Barack Obama sent a draft joint resolution to lawmakers on Wednesday.
This Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, would give the President the authority to wage a military campaign against ISIS, the radical terror group waging war in Iraq and Syria.
You mean the terror group the U.S. has been bombing since August?
Yes, that’s the one.
Obama authorized a first series of airstrikes against ISIS targets inside Iraq in early August 2014 and the U.S. has since been leading an international coalition of Western and Arab nations waging an air campaign against ISIS while providing support to local fighters on the ground.
In September, the U.S. expanded its airstrikes to Syria, where ISIS controls broad swaths of territory.
And for the last six months, Obama has leaned on AUMF resolutions from 2001 and 2002 as the basis for his authority.
So what’s changed? Why is Obama now seeking the Congressional seal of approval?
Not much, actually. Obama insists he has had and continues to have the legal authority to carry out strikes against ISIS.
“Although existing statutes provide me with the authority I need to take these actions,” Obama said.
What it’s really about, Obama wrote in his letter, is showing “the world that we are united in our resolve to counter” ISIS.
OK, but what’s actually in the White House draft? Do we get anything out of it?
The AUMF the Obama administration proposed is actually crucial in three key aspects because it defines and limits the U.S. military campaign in Iraq.
1. It puts Obama’s commitment not to drag the U.S. into another ground war in Iraq by prohibiting the President from deploying troops for “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”
Obama is a bit more explicit in his letter that any on-the-ground combat by U.S. forces would be limited to rescue operations and special ops forces missions to take out ISIS leaders. And some in Congress may push for that level of specificity in the legislative language as well.
2. The proposed AUMF would also expire in three years. That means the military would have to get the job done in three years or Congress will have to give the President an extension.
This is significant because neither the post-9/11 AUMF in 2001 nor the one in 2002 that authorized a nine-year war in Iraq had time limits. In fact, it’s those resolutions that gave Obama the legal standing to launch the current military campaign against ISIS.
3. That 2002 AUMF? It gets killed off in the White House proposal.
What doesn’t get killed off, though, is the 2001 authorization which continues to serve as at least a part of the legal grounds for the U.S.’s military actions against terrorists around the world.
That handy piece of legislation has been used by Obama and before him President George W. Bush to authorize military action around the world.
The list? Afghanistan, the Phillipines, Georgia, Yemen, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq and Somalia, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. That document’s from 2013, so you can now add Syria to that list too.
How is the 2001 AUMF different from the one the White House is proposing?
The 2001 resolution gave the President authority to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”
The purpose? “To prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.”
Take a few of the best lawyers of the country and throw them into the White House and you’ve got a pretty broad authorization to use military force to fight terrorism around the world.
And Obama’s proposed AUMF?
As stated before, it’s got a lot more limitations in terms of the type of military force and how long that force can be used.
And whereas the 2001 authorization doesn’t once mention al-Qaeda, Obama’s proposal makes it clear that the enemy is ISIS — it’s mentioned 17 times in the proposed text.
The text does give the President a bit of wiggle room when it comes to picking targets, which include “ISIL or associated persons or forces.”
Why not just ISIS?
It gives Obama some latitude to fight groups that fight alongside ISIS, like some of the other extremist groups fighting alongside ISIS in the Syrian civil war. The U.S.-led coalition has also targeted al-Qaeda offshoots al Nusra Front and the Khorasan Group in Syria.
Those “associated persons or forces” would include anyone “fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.”
So is this something Congress can finally agree on and get done?
Nearly every lawmaker on Capitol Hill agrees the U.S. needs to pass some kind of legislation to authorize the ongoing war against ISIS.
But they don’t all agree on what that kind of resolution should look like.
Already, top Republicans on Capitol Hill on Wednesday criticized the White House draft, asserting that it ties the President’s hands too much. (Yes, there’s a slight irony in Republicans wanting to give Obama more power — and CNN’s Athena Jones has you covered with this story.)
Some Democrats will bend in the opposite direction, insisting the AUMF is too vague and what the President can and can’t do needs to be more specifically defined — think defining “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”
But the interesting thing in this debate is that it’s not completely partisan and at the margins you have more hawkish Democrats and Republicans who are loath to expand the U.S military footprint abroad.