Congressional AUMF Debate Is a Sham

Six months after the United States began a bombing campaign against ISIS, President Obama has asked Congress to pass a new 'Authorization of Military Force' to make it official. The proposal has a time-stamp of three years, places limits on the use of ground troops, and sunsets a Bush era AUMF from 2002 that authorized military action in Iraq. It's the administration's attempt to appease both Democrats' supposed uneasiness about endless war and Republicans' thirst for more of it. The truth is, it changes nothing.

We can start with the most obvious opportunities for mission creep. The new proposed AUMF applies not only to ISIS but also "associated persons or forces" including any "closely related successor entity"; there are no geographical boundaries set in the language; troop limits include the possibility of rescue operations, the use of Special Operations forces and don't adequately define what an "enduring" presence would mean, and despite the three year expiration date, it can always be reauthorized. Let's also not pretend that if Congress doesn't give it the go ahead, "Operation Inherent Resolve" will suddenly cease. The president will just continue on without official permission as he has done since September 2014.

The more important aspect of the new proposal is what it leaves out: the 2001 AUMF remains untouched. Passed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the 2001 authorization is only 60 words long and yet it's become, as Gregory Johnsen called it, "the most dangerous sentence in history." Originally intended to provide legal cover for hunting down those responsible for the attacks, the lethal phrasing has been manipulated to justify drone strikes and shadow wars in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and beyond. It's also not as simple as repealing the 2001 AUMF. This administration has argued that it has other tools at its disposal, including Article II of the US Constitution, which decrees the president the commander-in-chief. The world has become Obama's battlefield and neither American citizens nor innocent civilians are beyond his reach.

Over the years he's been in office, the president's rhetoric has consistently failed to square up with his actions. Speaking from the White House this week, he said "I do not believe America's interests are served by endless war, or by remaining on a perpetual war footing." This echoes statements in past speeches promising to rein in a boundless war on terror, including a repeal of the 2001 AUMF. It seems the master orator has chosen to placate a war-weary and skeptical public with soothing words while holding a knife behind his back.

Six years into a presidency, the repetition shouldn't be surprising. Bending the law as it applies to military and clandestine warfare is a trademark of the Obama administration. Looking at media coverage, however, the deviations are rationalized by the efforts to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda," or "degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS." Sadly, 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, 13-year-old Mohammed Toiman al-Jahmi, or 67-year-old Momina Bibi continue to be seen as nothing more than collateral damage, and American citizens placed on a kill list are labelled terrorists without being given a day in court.

Perhaps even more disturbing than a constitutional scholar acting so flagrantly despite criticism from the legal community, human rights organizations, and even intelligence officials within the administration, is the hands-off policy of Congress. The legislative body has been full of complaints about Obama's foreign policy on both sides of the aisle, but they've never collectively organized to try and put a stop to it. This is often blamed on partisan disagreement, but since no one wants to be seen as "soft on terror," the consensus has been to shirk responsibility and let the president take the blame. Yes, Obama is the commander-in-chief, but the power to declare war lies with Congress (something they haven't officially done since WWII). Apparently checks and balances only matter when it's convenient.

The current "debate" over the president's new AUMF proposal puts the farce on display. Republican opposition has centered around absurdist concerns that it's too limiting, and that the game plan of how to defeat ISIS either isn't clear enough, or tells the enemy too much. Senator Ron Johnson told the National Journal, "I need to find out exactly what President Obama is trying to achieve... I know he says 'degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS.' I'm not sure what he means by that. I don't think his definition of destroy and defeat is the same as mine." While Senator Orrin Hatch told KSL radio, "If we advertise when the authorization expires with the arbitrary date and time, won't they just hunker down and wait for that date?" As if ISIS will pause for a few years until America gives up. The real outrage is that Republican shock at executive overreach on immigration or health care are absent in the realm of war.

Democrats meanwhile have shared their fears about a lack of constraints, but few have said they won't vote for the new proposal. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi toed a careful line with a painfully bland, "We hope to have bipartisan support for something that would limit the power of the president but nonetheless protect the American people." Rep. Adam Schiff, who in January introduced a war authorization bill, said, "It's I think quite carte blanche in terms of geography, types of forces, etc. And therefore, I think we're going to have to have a lot of work on that." That's a work in progress, not a rejection. Despite a recent and faint uptick in concern over perpetual conflict, AUMF repeal efforts have been blocked numerous times over the last 14 years and are just one reminder that Democrats have become a party that endorses aggression.

If the United States is truthfully aiming to curb its global military endeavors, neither Congress nor the president are making that clear. The faux dispute over the most recent proposal ignores the realities of this administration's legal logic and leaves its endless war mentality intact. The job description for 2016 hopefuls may as well read "No Limits."