The Syria AUMF: Be Careful What You Vote For

Whatever his motivations, it’s good that President Barack Obama has departed from past practicelet the Tomahawks fly and Congress be damnedand gone to the people’s representatives so they can stand and be counted. 

But, as I note in today’s Washington Examinerthat vote isn’t without danger. The draft authorization for the use of military force the administration circulated Saturday is strikingly broad. And if we know anything from the history of past AUMFs, it’s that presidents will push the authority they’re given as far as language will allow—and possibly further. 

In his Rose Garden press conference Saturday, Obama said “we would not put boots on the ground.” The action he’s contemplating would be “limited in duration and scope.” Just a “shot across the bow”—a light dusting of cruise missiles.  

The draft AUMF says no such thing:

  • It authorizes the president to use U.S. “armed forces,” not just air power. 
  • He can do that “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate,” so long as it’s “in connection” with use of unconventional weapons in Syria—and again, he determines what connection exists.
  • It doesn’t limit him to striking Syrian government forces, and it doesn’t limit him to Syria. It’s loose enough, as former Bush Office of Legal Council head Jack Goldsmith points out, to allow the president to wage war against Iran or Hezbollah in Lebanon, so long as “he determines” there’s some connection to WMD in Syria.
  • And it doesn’t contain a “sunset clause” time-limiting the authority granted—which means that authority will be available for future presidents as well. 

As a reminder, here’s LBJ announcing his decision to go to Congress for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, piously intoning that “we Americans know, though others appear to forget, the risks of spreading conflict. We still seek no wider war.”

 

A wider war, based on phony intelligence, is exactly what we got, and nearly five decades later we’re still learning new details about what a sickening disaster it was

More recently, our last two presidents have warped the post-9/11 AUMF beyond recognition, using it to justify to secret surveillance programs; military imprisonment, without charges, of American citizens on American soil; dronestrikes against American citizens abroad, and other actions never contemplated by Congress. Both Bush and Obama have treated a resolution empowering the president to go after those responsible for the September 11th atrocity and anyone who “harbored” them as a wholesale delegation of Congress’s war power, to be used against increasingly marginal groups that didn’t even exist on 9/11/01. The result has been war without end, drones over Timbuktu.  

Politico reports that Senate leaders are currently working on a narrower authorization for use of force in Syria, with limits on timing and methods. If passed, those limits may not stick. Recall that, in the days after 9/11, Congress worked to narrow the Bush administration’s staggeringly broad draft AUMFonly to have presidents Bush and Obama treat the resolution as a blank check for perpetual war.

With that backdrop, why bother trying to “fix” the president’s draft resolution on Syria? Even if the risks of presidential abuse aren’t as broad as they’ve turned out to be with the 2001 AUMF, the odds of the president doing anything useful with the new authority he seeks are vanishingly small. 

We’re contemplating entanglement in yet another Middle Eastern civil war to…to… achieve what, exactly? To show “our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules” by waging a war that’s clearly illegal under the UN CharterTo vindicate the presidential prerogative to blurt out arbitrary “red lines” and back them up with U.S. military might? To defend the high principle that when dictators slaughter civilians, they damned well better do it conventionally

President Obama’s case for congressional authorization cannot withstand serious scrutiny. And Congress shouldn’t “fix” what the president shouldn’t have.