President Obama has sent Congress a proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force against the Islamic State, and it’s not immediately clear why. His administration says it already has said authority via at least three different channels. Indeed, although the president’s proposal contains limits, he would still have ample legal authority to do whatever he wants against the Islamic State.
So why is he proposing this legislation at all? Because it would constrain our politically realistic options in the war against the Islamic State and Islamism in general, and he wants a congressional imprimatur for waging a constrained war.
An instructive example of his motivations is the bill’s repeal of the 2002 authorization for the use of force in Iraq. The president’s declaration of the end of our war did not, obviously, mark the end of said war. There is no obvious reason, besides putting an artificial coda on our war in Iraq, to repeal the authorization. Should the now Iran-friendly Iraqi government begin violating U.N. Security Council resolutions or become a threat to the U.S., or should some new terror threat arise within Iraq’s borders, the 2002 AUMF would give the president clear power to act. This president prefers the power to boast of putting a legal end to George Bush’s Iraq War.
Worse, the president also would like Congress to prohibit “enduring offensive ground combat operations” against ISIS and for the resolution to expire three years hence. These two restrictions are unprecedented and dangerous limits on the war powers of the executive, the most expansive prerogatives the Constitution gives him. In the Korean War, some American troops planned to be home by Christmas 1950, but it wasn’t because President Truman was going to lose his authority to keep them there on Boxing Day. Never before have such restrictions been written into an authorization of force. Restrictions on the conduct of a war are an inappropriate directive for Congress to give to the commander-in-chief, and the only kind of president who would ask for them is one who hopes to share the blame for failure.
The three-year limitation gives reason for optimism to the Islamic State, that they can wait out our half-hearted efforts, and sets up a messy congressional fight when it expires. The ground-troops stricture, while theoretically meaningless, could still as a political matter limit our commander-in-chief’s and military’s ability to do their job properly. The war on Islamic terror is not like many of America’s past wars, and requires more flexibility, not less.
The restrictions have to go. Yet a clean authorization of war against the Islamic State is a good idea — if it buttresses and legitimizes our war rather than weakens and limits it.
The 2001 resolution that authorized actions against al-Qaeda and affiliated entities does authorize any actions necessary against ISIS, because of the connection between those two groups. But as ISIS acquires affiliates and allies around the world — militants from Benghazi to Pakistan have pledged their loyalty — it would make sense to have an authorization specifically targeting it and its affiliates, or even an authorization authorizing the president to make war on the global forces of Islamist terror.
Of course, such a declaration should not be passed only to ring hollow. This president’s conduct of all three wars in which he has been engaged — in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and against ISIS — suggests that it would. We need a serious reassessment of American strategy against Islamic terror and a commensurate restoration of defense spending, but these almost surely will have to come from a new president.
Until then, we hope President Obama will conduct the war against the Islamic State vigorously and responsibly. News this week that our best allies in the region, the Kurds, are pleading in vain for American arms and materiel is just one indication that the president is not interested in winning this war. His inadequate request for new authority to fight it is another.