The Corner

National Security & Defense

Reminder: Congress Rejected the AUMF Against ISIS Because it Didn’t Want a Third Obama Term

Today the Huffington Post took an extended look at the failure to pass an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIS. The answer is relatively simple — an abject failure of leadership, primarily from the commander-in-chief and secondarily from Congress. 

President Obama’s proposed AUMF represented an effort to mandate a de facto third Obama term of national security failure. He attempted to write into law not only severe limitations on the use of ground forces but also a time limit on military operations. As I wrote at the time, these limits would likely cause a crisis in the event a Republican president chose to follow his own counsel:

The intrusion on the next commander-in-chief’s authority is unprecedented. With a limitation of three years and a prohibition against “enduring offensive ground combat operations” (whatever that means) just imagine the outcry if a future Republican president deviated materially from President Obama’s current course of action. Would the introduction on the ground of a Brigade Combat Team lead to calls for impeachment? If ISIS proves resilient in the face of mandated limited war (as would be likely), would we face a national debate over mandatory withdrawal and retreat?

But the president’s failure isn’t the end of the matter. Congress has the power to pass a “clean” AUMF and put it on Obama’s desk, but it hasn’t done so. Instead, it’s functionally treating previous authorizations as unlimited declarations that authorize the president to use all force he deems appropriate. In other words, it seems as if Congress is willing — for now — to rest the legal case for war on previous authorizations and ride out the rest of Obama’s term.

I’d prefer to see Congress explicitly and without limitation authorize war against ISIS, leaving the execution of the military effort to the president (including, of course, the next president) and his military commanders. A clean authorization would send a message of resolve from a united nation (matching our allies), it would cleanse any lingering constitutional controversy from current operations, and it would give a new president all the tactical or strategic flexibility he or she needs to strike decisively against ISIS. But barring extraordinary events — like another terror attack — it looks like our government is going to ride out the status quo until January 2017.

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