The ability of the U.S. president to exercise wide discretion in using the U.S. military has become a critical element of U.S. global leadership. But it has always been a circumscribed power. And while the debate over a new Authorization on the Use of Military Force (AUMF) has specific focus on the Islamic State group (also known as ISIS or ISIL) now controlling swaths of Iraq and Syria and threatening much of the broader Middle East, it in fact has much broader implications for how a president might use force. So not surprisingly, the debate has been highly contentious within Congress and largely partisan, though there are important elements of both parties that disagree with President Obama, and with their fellow Democrats or Republicans as well.
The last thing the nation needs right now is pointless political acrimony. There is a simple solution to the current impasse: kill the debate, and leave well enough alone. We don’t need a new war powers act for this conflict right now.
Fallling back on the 2001 AUMF
Instead, the United States can fall back on the 2001 AUMF, passed very shortly after the 9/11 attacks and allowing retaliation against groups involved in that attack or any other entities supporting and abetting them. That authorization was open-ended and as such can still guide current policymaking, even now. It arguably applies against ISIL because, even though ISIL and al-Qaida are now at loggerheads, ISIL had its origins within the al-Qaida movement and shares a very similar apocalyptic, extremist, ruthless ideology. The two groups have also interacted so much, and had so much overlapping membership over the years, that it is straightforward to construe ISIL as a direct associate of the organization that carried out those heinous attacks in New York and Washington nearly 14 years ago.
Of course, President Obama does not like the open-ended and broad nature of the 2001 legislation. That is why he wants to replace it. Except for one little thing—he doesn’t, really. The draft legislation that his administration has proposed would NOT replace the 2001 AUMF. It would add to it. So what is the point?
The new legislation would repeal the 2002 Congressional authorization on the use of force to overthrow Saddam Hussein (more specifically and literally, to ensure his compliance with resolutions banning the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction). But Saddam is already overthrown, and in fact he is dead, as are his sons. Iraq is also verifiably devoid of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons as well as their precursors and other associated technologies. That legislation is effectively defunct already, whether repealed or not.
There is a surreality about trying to determine, here in the comfort of Washington, D.C. in early 2015, exactly what tools of military power may or may not be needed, and for how long, and for what specific purposes, in the future campaign against ISIL. The proposed legislation would put a time limit of three years on the operation and would presumably tilt heavily against any large-scale use of American ground forces in any future efforts.
Predicting the future course of the nation’s wars
But how can we know how long the conflict will take? Back in 2012, when campaigning for reelection, President Obama forecast the demise of al-Qaida; earlier, in 2011, he felt that Iraq was safe enough that American combat forces could be safely withdrawn from that country. Whether understandable and justifiable at the time or not, both of these views have been proven incorrect subsequently.
This is not meant as a harsh critique of Obama. Other American presidents have tried to predict the future course of the nation’s wars before—and failed as well. President Bush thought most of our forces would be home from Iraq by the fall of 2003, the year of the invasion. President Clinton thought the Kosovo war of 1999 could be won with a few days of pinprick air strikes; in fact, the war required a tenfold increase in our airpower and nearly three months to win in the end. Going back further in history, many Washingtonians thought the first battle of Manassas would end the Civil War nearly as soon as it began in 1861. So they made a day of it, dressing in their Sunday best to go watch the little skirmish since they feared that if they missed it, the sights would be over and they’d never get a similar chance again. The list goes on.
So why not learn from our mistakes? We don’t know how to predict what happens in war. And we don’t know what the al-Qaida and ISIL threats will look like in 2018, in Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan or someplace else. Let’s not try to figure it out now. The better part of valor, and wisdom, is being humble in our ability to forecast the future about this particular type of threat.
To be sure, there should be a high bar for any new and substantial use of American military power in the region. If for example the United States winds up considering participation in a future Syria peace enforcement mission that, I hope, may become an option in future years as a way to uphold some kind of peace deal in that country, Congress should vote on it before troops are deployed. Meanwhile, Congress can and should—and must—continue to vote each year on funding for ongoing activities like the air campaign in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, by approving funding for such operations last year, Congress has already had a hand in assessing and approving current military activities against ISIL. The appropriations process is not as good for considering possible future military options, to be sure—which is why any large-scale effort should be debated in advance. But it does constitute a measure of oversight, and a proper constitutional division of powers between the Executive and Legislative branches.
Perhaps the debate has been useful to a point, allowing a good airing of the issues and the policy choices that may come before us, especially in regard to Syria, where our current approach is failing badly. So let’s declare success, end this debate, and move on to something else.