President Barack Obama, who won the White House on promises to end never-ending wars and the Bush-era laws that permitted them, on Wednesday sent Congress a new request for legal authorities to fight the Islamic State, or ISIS, that places few limits on the U.S. war against the terrorist group.
“The resolution we’ve submitted today does not call for the deployment of U.S. ground combat forces to Iraq or Syria. It is not the authorization of another ground war, like Afghanistan or Iraq,” Obama said in his announcement at the White House. “I’m convinced that the United States should not get dragged back into another prolonged ground war in the Middle East … At the same time, this resolution strikes the necessary balance by giving us the flexibility we need for unforeseen circumstances.”
Already, lawmakers are criticizing the request for being too “ambiguous” about the president’s powers to wage or limit ground combat.
Obama’s drafted Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, comes after more than six months, thousands of air strikes and more than $1.2 billion spent fighting ISIS – and one day after the confirmation that yet another hostage, American aid-worker Kayla Mueller, had been killed. The proposal is facing stiff and broad opposition in a Congress divided over the president’s plans for the Islamic State fight and the broader U.S. national security strategy.
The president’s request gives Obama administration officials sweeping authority to wage combat. It lays out a broad definition of ISIS “associated persons or forces” and language on the use of ground combat forces is so vague that lawmakers from both parties say they don’t understand it. The president’s authority under the new AUMF would end in three years, and the proposal would repeal a prior authorization Congress passed in 2002 to approve the invasion of Iraq. The new authority does not limit the geographic range of the war, and would not repeal the 2001 AUMF, the legal justification for the Afghanistan war and counterterrorism operations across the globe.
The text states the president is authorized to use the Armed Forces as he deems “necessary and appropriate against ISIL or associated persons or forces.”
Lawmakers are again expressing concern about some authorities contained in latest proposal that already have been examined in the previous authorizations. The White House defines “associated persons or forces” as “individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” It is similar language to that used in the 2001 AUMF, passed just after Sept. 11, which has served as the authorization for virtually every U.S. counterterrorism action in the more than 13 years since — including the Islamic State fight. The 2001 AUMF was widely interpreted as being intended for al-Qaeda, a group which has disassociated itself with ISIS, which did not exist at the time the authorization was passed. But the White House has argued ISIS has “inherited” al-Qaeda’s mission.
The only specified new limitation is that the AUMF against ISIS, “does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.”
Obama reiterated in his speech what he stated in his letter to Congress that accompanied the new proposal: “My Administration’s draft AUMF would not authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operations like those our Nation conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.” While steadfastly insisting for half a year that he would not authorize U.S.“boots on the ground,” Obama clarified in his letter that the AUMF proposal would allow ground combat for rescue operations, special forces operations against Islamic State leadership, and in unanticipated scenarios in which U.S. forces are engaged in fighting, in the process of intelligence gathering, calling in air strikes or advising coalition partners.
But those narrowed guidelines don’t exist in the AUMF proposal itself. And according to reports, the some 3,000 U.S. forces already deployed in the fight as advisors to Iraqi and Kurdish forces would be excluded from these limitations.
Lawmakers are seeking clarification, unsure of what the “enduring offensive ground combat operations” language means and unsatisfied with the explanation so far.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said the phrase “is ambiguous and could leave us in perpetual debate on what the military is authorized to do.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said the ground troops language, “is very broad and very ambiguous … None of us really know what that means, and it’s deliberately drafted, I think, to be ambiguous.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest admitted as much Wednesday, saying the language was intentionally ambiguous to preserve flexibility.
As Schiff quipped, “The only thing we can safely assume is that whatever mission might be approved in the future, it won’t be called enduring freedom or enduring anything,” referencing the belated naming of the current U.S. military operation and the war in Afghanistan, dubbed, “Operation Enduring Freedom.”
Schiff and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said with no limit on geography, the measure could be used for military action against Boko Haram in Africa or militants in Libya, or an as of yet unforeseen scenario.
“Finally here we are today, finally trying to put the horse before the cart,” Kaine said.
There is no guarantee that Congress will pass a new AUMF for the Islamic State; though it took months, Wednesday’s move is only the first step. GOP Sens. John McCain, Ariz., Lindsey Graham, S.C., and Rand Paul, Ky., have already said they will not support a measure that includes elements of the White House proposal – all for different reasons.
For many members, questions remain on the broader strategy against the Islamic State: Is the goal containment or extermination? What happens if the Syrian regime engages U.S.-trained moderate Syrian opposition who are taking the fight to ISIS in Syria?
(Related: Even Containment Needs Boots on the Ground)
Obama himself noted the key questions that remain, stressing their importance. “I do not believe America’s interests are served by endless war, or by remaining on a perpetual war footing,” he said. “As a nation, we need to ask the difficult and necessary questions about when, why and how we use military force.”
In the case of the new AUMF, it’s Congress that now has the difficult task of coming up with the answers. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has jurisdiction over the AUMF, will hold the first hearing after Congress returns following a recess next week.
As Corker told Defense One, “That is one of bigger issues for people, that [the administration] is committed to something that is successful. That is the bigger piece than the language that they send over.”