Submitting a draft authorization for use of military force (AUMF) and a clarifying letter, President Obama is asking Congress to end the Islamic State. This move signals new American seriousness about the undeniable threat that ISIS poses to the world. Nevertheless, there are two specific strengths and two specific weaknesses to President Obama’s proposal.
Strengths first. Albeit with qualifications, this AUMF shows that Mr. Obama has finally recognized his commanders’ longstanding advice: ISIS won’t be defeated without U.S. ground forces. Unfortunately, thanks to the Iraqi army’s weakness and the sectarian criminality that defines Iranian-sponsored militias, U.S. ground forces are indispensable. Their presence (hopefully with Jordanian support) will enable the coalition to do two things: First, mobilize the Sunni tribes of eastern Syria and western Iraq in a second “awakening” rebellion against ISIS. Second, support those Sunni tribal forces, Kurdish forces, and Iraqi military units with air-attack controllers. Skill for skill, courage for courage, ISIS is no match for the U.S military. This is not bluster but a fact of history.
In addition, with the AUMF authorizing action against “associated persons” (“individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside [ISIS] . . . against the United States or its coalition partners”) around the world, the battlefield will now necessarily expand. Again, this is critical in two specific regards. First, it will allow the U.S. to puncture — both physically and psychologically — ISIS’s shroud of ordained protection. Thus far, ISIS has been able to recruit others across the world by suggesting that its survival against U.S. air strikes proves that it enjoys divine protection. Soon ISIS’s global supporters will find that their flag is, rather than a banner of sacred pride, a magnet for high explosives. Further, by also authorizing action against “associated persons.” the AUMF will help U.S. agencies smash ISIS support networks — recruitment facilitators and financial fundraisers — wherever they might be. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing some unexplained heart attacks in Qatar.
Nevertheless, this AUMF, the product of the Obama national-security team, is far from perfect.
For a start, its three-year sunset clause will feed the ISIS propaganda that the American public is timid and short-sighted, and it will encourage ISIS leaders to believe they can wait America out. It will also concern U.S. allies in the Middle East who are desperate for a long-term U.S. commitment to regional stability. At a strategic level, it will greatly magnify fears (especially from the Sunni Arab monarchies) that America will abandon them to Iran.
The AUMF is also weakened by its preclusion of “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” While this term is vague and could be interpreted at the president’s constitutional discretion, it will fuel the fire of the Democratic Left. Imagine, for example, the looming scenario in which a few hundred U.S. ground forces join with Iraqi forces to push ISIS out of a major city like Mosul. Such an operation might take a number of weeks, but after just one or two, anti-war Democrats would likely start complaining. This will concern General Dempsey and General Austin. Just as with the short-lived August 2013 AUMF against Syria (watch General Dempsey’s reaction back then), vague restrictions like this AUMF’s “enduring” caveat are anathema to good strategy. Equally importantly, U.S. commanders want to know that when they send young men and women into battle, those personnel will be free to win. That President Obama has even proposed this restriction raises questions as to his commitment.
Still, all in all, this is a step in the right direction. The present fact is that the Islamic State is destroying the Middle East and spreading terror westward. The corollary truth? In the cause of a just peace and America’s security, this AUMF will help send the Islamic State, finally, to its grave.