Commentary

Congress Should Set Limits on Obama’s ISIS War

Last Saturday marked six months since President Obama unilaterally launched our latest war in the Middle East. We’ve since hit Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) targets with more than 2,000 airstrikes and we have 3,000 troops—or, as the administration prefers to call them, “military advisers,”—on the ground.

Last week, three months after he pledged to “begin engaging Congress over a new authorization for military force against ISIL,” the president finally filed the paperwork, sending Congress a draft Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) designed to provide legal cover for what he’s been doing for more than half a year.

If we’ve learned anything from the history of past AUMFs (an open question), it’s that presidents will push the authority they’re given as far as language will allow—and possibly further. Last week’s draft resolution is no exception: What limits it purports to impose are largely illusory. If Congress were to pass it as drafted, it might end up ceding the president even vaster war powers than he’s claimed to date.

It’s not at all clear what the president’s strategy is in the fight against ISIS, or what victory is supposed to look like.

The president’s draft AUMF does not limit military operations to Iraq and Syria, and it contains a broad “associated forces” provision that could open the door to the sort of endless target-list proliferation we’ve seen under the 2001 AUMF. The 2001 resolution, passed by Congress three days after the 9/11 attacks and aimed principally at Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, doesn’t mention “associated forces,” yet two presidents have stretched its language to authorize an ever-expanding war against groups that didn’t exist on 9/11 and whose connections with “core” Al-Qaeda are ever more tenuous. The Obama AUMF, which would authorize force against allies of ISIS “successor entit[ies]” fighting our “coalition partners,” could prove even more malleable.

Consider this exchange between Senator Udall and Secretary of State John Kerry, in Kerry’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last December:

UDALL: How should the authorization of force treat groups who have pledged their…allegiance to the Islamic State, including, as of December 2014, groups in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia?

KERRY: They should be associated forces. They fit under that category.

The danger of “mission creep” could hardly be plainer.

Moreover, what “limits” the Obama AUMF contains fully deserve the scare quotes. The resolution specifies that it “does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations,” but what “enduring” might mean (shorter than “Operation Enduring Freedom”?) is hardly clear enough to bind.

Even if it were, President Obama continues to claim that “existing statutes,” including the 2001 AUMF, “provide me with the authority I need” to wage war. Since the Obama AUMF does nothing to rein in the authorities the president has claimed under the 2001 AUMF, he could do an end-run around any new restrictions by claiming his actions are being carried out under authority granted by the earlier authorization.

Using a similar gambit, Obama’s successor could even evade the new AUMF’s time limits, carrying the war past the three-year sunset.

It’s not at all clear what the president’s strategy is in the fight against ISIS, or what victory is supposed to look like. But if Congress is going to retroactively authorize the president’s latest war, it ought to get something in the bargain.

It could start by reclaiming some of its atrophied authority with a sunset for the 2001 AUMF, which has been warped into an enabling statute for an open-ended, globe-spanning war. Any ISIS AUMF should also, at a minimum, include clear barriers to “mission creep,” including geographical limits, genuine transparency requirements and limits on ground troops.

There’s nothing novel about such restrictions: A recent review of past congressional authorizations found that 60 percent contained geographic limitations and 37 percent “limited the kinds of military operations or forces authorized to be employed.” But for those limits to stick, any new AUMF will have to clearly repudiate the president’s specious interpretation of past authorities.

In his December testimony, Secretary Kerry cautioned Congress against “micromanaging” the president’s military options. The far greater danger, as the president’s draft AUMF makes clear, is further codifying our drift toward perpetual presidential war.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.