The President’s Request for Authorization for Use of Military Force

The President wants a new Authorization for Use of Military Force: Is this another recipe for endless war?

If the first cake flopped, change the recipe.

Derek Duncan

On February 11, 2015 President Obama sent a letter asking for Congressional authorization for use of military force (AUMF) against ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), also known as ISIS or simply the Islamic State. Congress has not yet approved the AUMF, but the President’s request indicates a willingness to increase offensive military operations against this adversary, even including the possibility of ground troops. However there has not been sufficient debate about where additional war in the Middle East might lead us. The President’s request is also a recognition that such military operations require clear legal authorization from Congress, yet the President’s draft request does not sufficiently define and limit the scope of the operations. More fundamentally though, as a Church marking 30 years of commitment to Just Peace practices, we should be persistent in asking our leaders if sufficient attention has been given to diplomatic, civil society, and non-violent grassroots initiatives to counter the violence of ISIL before we wade into another war in the Middle East.

The U.S. has not fully assessed the impact and effects of its decade long Iraq war, and insofar as that country and the broader region remain destabilized and volatile, the time is premature to consider engaging additional ground forces in the Middle East. The nation is still absorbing the costs of the Iraq war, financially and in terms of lives lost and damaged by the trauma of conflict, both in the U.S. and among the people of Iraq, many of whom are still displaced and damaged by ongoing violence. It is reasonable to ask whether the decision to go to war in Iraq has perhaps done more harm than good. It is doubtful whether the country of Iraq will remain intact, and the political and social tapestry of the Middle East has been so torn that it is unclear whom we should support or how we might proceed in a military strategy against ISIL.

The President’s draft AUMF seeks permission to deploy Armed Forces against ISIL and any ‘‘associated persons or forces.’’ While attempting to define “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,” the definition remains too ambiguous. And while the AUMF would be limited to 3 years, pending re-authorization, the reference to “successor” entities makes the AUMF open-ended in scope of time, much like the 2001 AUMF has been used to justify continuing war against groups that the U.S. maintains bear continued culpability for the atrocities of September 11, 2011.

The President’s draft AUMF is also unlimited geographically. Would the authorization allow combat operations beyond Iraq and Syria? What about U.S. troops in Yemen, or Tunisia, or in Nigeria, where the militant group Boko Haram has pledged alliance to the Islamic State? Congress needs to debate the goals and limits of a potential military strategy against ISIL in light of the outcomes and effects of the U.S. military presence and actions in the region since the start of the Iraq war. If that plan now seems half-baked, then maybe a different recipe is needed for defeating ISIL.

The President wants to have his 2001 AUMF cake and eat it too.

The President’s current AUMF request would appropriately repeal the 2002 AUMF that authorized the Iraq war, but it leaves intact the more expansive and problematic 2001 AUMF that gave approval to go after not only those responsible for 9-11, but to use force “in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.” After the 2001 Congressional vote, California Democratic Representative Barbara Lee, the only vote opposing the AUMF, said

“It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events — anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration.”

This blank check has provided the backstop legal justification for any and all U.S. anti-terror operations that are not otherwise specifically authorized, included the expanding U.S. lethal drone program and the military support thus far given in opposition to ISIL.  In fact, for a long time President Obama hesitated asking Congress for a new AUMF against ISIL because he argued that he has sufficient legal authorization to engage in combat through the 2001 AUMF. In his February letter to Congress requesting authorization, the President makes the claim: “Although existing statutes provide me with the authority I need to take these actions, I have repeatedly expressed my commitment to working with the Congress to pass a bipartisan authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIL.”

Critics of the 2001 AUMF have called it a recipe for endless war, and Representative Barbara Lee’s misgivings about the enduring license it gives the President has proved prescient. By clinging onto the 2001 AUMF while asking for new powers to go after ISIL, the President is attempting to have his cake and eat it too. Congress should take back responsibility for its role in deciding to authorize war and repeal the 2001 AUMF, regardless of whether or not it passes the AUMF against ISIL.

The debate over the AUMF is currently stalled in Congress, but as it moves to consider how the U.S. should respond to ISIL, Congress should thoroughly debate the objectives and limits of any new AUMF. A much narrower authorization would include a repeal of both the 2002 and 2001 AUMFs, more specific geographic limitations, a period shorter than three years before re-authorization would be required, and a clear prohibition against ground troops.

In the past the President has stated that there is no solely military solution to stopping ISIL. The draft AUMF requested by President Obama, or any new AUMF that is not sufficiently limited and does not explicitly repeal past AUMFs, relies too much on a military strategy versus more robust diplomatic,  financial,  development, humanitarian and broader regional political strategies that have yet to be sufficiently developed or attempted. Congress should not authorize the President to engage the U.S. in another Middle East war unless it is clear how such a mission would fit into a broader Middle East policy that supports it and would be sustainable in the long-term.  On March 16 leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the United Church of Christ, and Global Ministries were among nineteen signatories to a letter to President Obama and both houses of Congress on the occasion of the 12th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (March 2003) and the 4th anniversary of the violence in Syrian (March 2011). The letter argues that the root causes of violence in Syria and Iraq must be addressed and that “the violence and death must end, on all sides; it must not be stoked with the recourse to lethal action.”

What is the best strategy to solve the violence and division continuing to roil the Middle East? Congress and the administration should be debating the question, but it is doubtful that an authorization for more lethal action on the part of the U.S. is the ingredient most needed at this time.



Categories: Column Getting to the Root of It

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