Obama’s ISIS AUMF: Codifying “Mission Creep”

Today, six months after President Obama unilaterally launched our latest war in Iraq, five months after he expanded the war to Syria, four months after his administration thought up a name for the war, and three months after he promised to go to Congress for authorization, the president sent congressional leaders a draft “Authorization for the Use of Military Force against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”—along with a message insisting that “existing statutes provide me with the authority I need” to wage war anyway.

Better late than never? Maybe not: as I explain in my “Reclaiming the War Power” chapter in Cato’s new monograph “Policy Priorities for the 114th Congress,” retroactive authorization might be worth it as part of a package deal that sunsets the 2001 AUMF and imposes new barriers to “mission creep” in the war against ISIS. The Obama AUMF does neither.

As drafted, the president’s ISIS AUMF:

1. Does not impose geographic restrictions on the use of military forces (…thus a war that began with the placeholder Pentagon designation “Operations in Iraq and Syria” could easily expand beyond its current two-country theater);

2. Does not include firm limitations on ground combat operations (…unless you think barring “enduring offensive ground combat operations” is a workable and enduring limitation);

3. Does not preclude the war’s expansion to “associates of associates” of ISIS (… in fact, the Obama AUMF’s “associated forces” provision contains a broader delegation than did the 2001 AUMF, which doesn’t contain any such provision…);

4. Does not sunset the 2001 AUMF; and

5. Does not clarify application of the 2001 AUMF to the ISIS fight (…which risks leaving any limits it imposes susceptible to evasion by a president invoking the earlier resolution).

What little congressional debate we’ve seen so far on the president’s new war hardly smacks of “Profiles in Courage.” Still, the draft AUMF approved by the lame-duck Senate Foreign Relations Committee last December, flawed as it was, made for a far better starting point. It imposed a three-year sunset on the 2001 AUMF, applied new transparency requirements, and at least tried to provide limits on ground combat beyond a few flexible adjectives. If Congress is going to retroactively authorize the president’s latest war, they ought to reclaim some of the control they’ve ceded, not blithely delegate still more power. As I argue in greater detail here, “the 114th Congress should pick up where the SFRC left off, and impose additional limits on presidential authority.” Adopting the Obama AUMF as-is would amount to signing another blank check.