Whatever his motivations, it’s good that President Barack Obama has departed from past practice—let the Tomahawks fly and Congress be damned—and gone to the people’s representatives so they can stand and be counted.
But, as I note in today’s Washington Examiner, that 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.”