National Security & Defense

An AUMF Debate Is Unlikely to Be Productive in This Political Climate

A Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet refuels in the skies over Iraq in August. (Photo: Staff Sergeant Trevor T. McBride)
A clearer delineation of the president’s limits in fighting the War on Terror would be welcome, but our polarized Congress has shown little evidence that it could produce one.

The Senate will soon hold a hearing on whether a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) is needed in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism.

In principle, rethinking the AUMF is overdue. America needs a healthy exploration of who the enemy is and of the strategy and tools necessary to defeat him. Whether it resulted in a changed AUMF or not, such a discussion would contribute a lot to the clarity and resolve that are necessary for the United States to defeat Islamic terrorism.

But I have doubts that a debate in the current climate is likely to lead to a productive outcome, especially since it is arising out of a tragic incident — the death of four American servicemen in Niger — that has already been politicized. What we are likely to get instead is a barrage of charges and countercharges designed to achieve short-term political gains for the people making them.

Let’s look at the current AUMF, which was passed in 2001, after the 9/11 attacks. Here is what, in relevant part, it says:

The President is authorized 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, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

A new AUMF isn’t necessary to authorize the missions the United States is currently conducting in Niger and other countries in North and Central Africa. The “organization” that “planned, authorized, [and] committed” the 9/11 attacks was al-Qaeda. In the years since, being pummeled by American forces, al-Qaeda has changed its method of operation. It is a much flatter and wider organization now, relying less (for the time being) on large-scale, centrally planned attacks against First World countries and more on terror and subversion in Third World, failed, or failing states with substantial Muslim populations.

That means al-Qaeda has spread, a lot, even not counting its association with groups like Jabhat al-Nusra. In fact, spreading is its strategy; it wants to move into countries that do not have the infrastructure and stable governance needed to defeat it. And that means that one of the priorities of the United States should be to build up the capacity to resist of the governments in such countries.

It’s a sign of the strategic confusion that surrounds the war that many well-meaning people were upset to discover that the United States was operating in Niger. Yes, the casualties suffered there were heartbreaking, and yes, such missions do carry the risk of loss; but the risk is much less than the danger of either not opposing the spread of Islamic terrorism at all or fighting the enemy everywhere with our own forces.

Leaders in Washington often call for allies and partners around the world to do more to assist the United States in its global responsibilities. They are right, and that is precisely the reason America’s Special Operating Forces need to be training allied forces in countries at risk of terrorist penetration. Al-Qaeda is operating in Niger, but even if it weren’t, it is a good thing, not a bad one, to get out in front of the terrorists for once, and train forces in countries they have not yet penetrated but are at risk of penetrating.

It’s a sign of the strategic confusion that surrounds the war that many well-meaning people were upset to discover that the United States was operating in Niger.

Secretary Mattis will undoubtedly explain all this when he testifies before the Senate. He will give those who want to listen an idea of how many places the United States is “capacity building,” as the Pentagon calls it. (My guess is that his department would be building capacity even more vigorously than it is if he had a bigger Army at his disposal, but that is another discussion for another day.)

Having said all that, a thoughtful reconsideration of the AUMF would be welcome. The main reason is that it is hard to win a war unless you know whom you are fighting. Who is the enemy here?

In a substantive debate, it might be possible for the Left, as a movement, to finally and fully concede that there is a link between Islam and international Islamic terrorism.  If that were established, I think everyone would agree that the enemy includes not just al-Qaeda but, at minimum, all organizations motivated by what Andy McCarthy has helpfully called “sharia supremacism” that operationalize their ideology by engaging in violent attacks against civilian targets.

Beyond that, important second-order questions could be considered. What about lone wolves, if there is truly such a thing as a lone wolf? What about those who preach the ideology that supports the enemy but do not participate in the attacks? What about movements like Hamas, which otherwise fit the definition but which focus their efforts in one locale against one target? What about governments that sponsor or support elements of the enemy for reasons at least partly separated from their ideology?

No matter what we do, the terrorist war will continue to be messy. But our leaders could make it less messy, and a lot clearer, if they would make good-faith efforts to identify who our enemies are, and whether and for what purposes our policy should distinguish between different categories of them.

What Congress should not do is attempt to micromanage military operations. To be sure, if there are tactics so repugnant — like torture or the execution of civilians — that the United States should never engage in them, those tactics can be, should be, and have been outlawed. And Congress can certainly use its oversight power to inquire into the shortfalls of particular missions. But it should not dictate the time, place, or manner of ongoing operations — not if we want to have any chance of winning.

There is a good reason the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war but not to wage it.

Plenty of current and former executive-branch officials in both parties do not want Congress to reconsider the current AUMF. They concede that the current authorization is, if not deficient, then less clear than is desirable. In a less toxic world, they would welcome an updated AUMF. But a less toxic world is not the world they live in, and they would rather make do with what they have than risk further action by the Congress. That says all that need be said about why the peril America faces is so great, and growing still.


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Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.


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