Ret. Gen. John Allen, the top official coordinating the battle against ISIS, prepares to testify on Capitol Hill before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Feb. 25, 2015.

Ret. Gen. John Allen, the top official coordinating the battle against ISIS, prepares to testify on Capitol Hill before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Feb. 25, 2015. Susan Walsh/AP

Obama’s ISIS War Leaders Unclear on Proposed War Power’s Limits

Obama’s war leaders all have different definitions for his AUMF. But they want lawmakers to pass it anyway.

Ask three of President Barack Obama’s top officials in the Islamic State fight what war powers he has asked for from Congress, and you’ll get three different answers.

There is only one explicit limitation to the president’s power to wage war against ISIS that is offered in the White House’s draft authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF: that it “does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.” The chances of Congress authorizing the war against the Islamic State largely hinge on the phrase. But on Wednesday, retired Gen. John Allen, Obama’s special envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIL, could not -- or would not -- define it.

“I think it would be difficult to put necessarily a level of precision against the word ‘enduring,” Allen told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Enduring might only be two weeks. But enduring might be two years.”

Earlier in the day, Army Secretary John McHugh said he felt the president meant to define enduring by including “a three-year limit.”

“So you can reasonably assume that under that authority, if that authority goes away in three years, the ‘enduring’ part of the mission would not be more than three years,” said McHugh, who served in Congress for 17 years. “But that’s just math, that’s not policy.”

Enduring might only be two weeks. But enduring might be two years.
Gen. John Allen, special envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIL

Secretary of State John Kerry, on Tuesday, testifying before the same committee as Allen, gave a different definition. “Now, ‘enduring’ in our mind means no long-term offensive combat of a large scale, which is what the president has defined,” he said.

From “degrade and destroy” to “associated persons or forces,” the debate in Congress over the ISIS war has become a war over words. But when it comes to an AUMF, a statutory legal authority by which the president can use U.S. military force, words matter -- the 2001 AUMF passed after 9/11 was initially only 60 words long, and continues to serve after more than 13 years as the primary legal foundation for every counterterrorism operation around the globe.

(RelatedRead John Allen's op-ed on destroying ISIS here

Lawmakers will have to tackle these ambiguities as they attempt to come to a compromise on a new AUMF. Many Republicans strongly oppose the White House draft for being too restrictive, and many Democrats strongly oppose the proposal for being a “blank check,” as Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee put it.

“Two weeks is one thing, two years is another. And this is the problem with the language as it exists,” Menendez told Allen Wednesday. “There is no clear defining element of the authorization given to the president in which hundreds but maybe hundreds of thousands of troops could be sent. They could be sent for long periods of time.”

“We want to fight ISIL. But we can’t provide a blank check to this or any future president.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who argues that the AUMF proposal is too restrictive, echoed senators’ concerns later Wednesday.

We want to fight ISIL. But we can’t provide a blank check to this or any future president.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.

“We already put too many encumbrances on our troops in carrying out the missions they are assigned, in my view,” Thornberry said. “Going into battle with a lawyer nearby to decide whether a particular action is ‘enduring’ or ‘offensive’ or a ‘ground combat operation’ seems problematic.” Thornberry’s committee takes up the issue on Thursday.

Obama administration officials have acknowledged that the AUMF is intentionally ambiguous to give the president maximum flexibility they argue he needs to successfully “degrade and destroy” ISIS. But they don’t deny the complications.

“The definition becomes irrelevant,” McHugh said, “…as with all legislative matters, congressional intent and meanings of words are defined initially by the Congress, and then, if required later, by the courts.”

Kerry called it “straightforward” with a “sufficient level of fuzz.”

“This is a pretty straightforward prohibition without curtailing exigencies and leaving that sufficient level of fuzz that the other side can't decide, ‘Oh, we got a safe haven here. We can do whatever we want,’ or, ‘They're not going to be able to, you know, whack us if we go do this or that or the other thing,’” Kerry said. “So I think there have to be -- there has to be a little bit of leeway there.”

“But rest assured, there is, in our judgment, no way possible for this language to be misinterpreted and allow a kind of mission creep that takes us into a long-term war.”

Allen conceded the inclusion of a three-year sunset on the AUMF is more what’s required of the politics than the mission.

“Does the length of time really particularly matter to you from the stand point of the allies and those that we’re defeating, or is it just more Congress getting behind the effort in a bipartisan way?” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked.

Allen responded: “I think it’s the latter.”

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