The Ongoing AUMF Struggle

December 15, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

“I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL, but I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together,” President Obama stated in September when he first announced offensive military action against the Islamic State, using an acronym for the group.  With that being said, the administration has invited and asked for congressional authorization that would amount to a formality in endorsing military action as outlined by the Constitution.  However, this process has been unnecessarily lethargic and gritty.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday finally  passed an “Islamic State specific” authorization for use of military force (AUMF).  In a typically bipartisan process, this proposal narrowly passed the committee 10-8.  After over a decade of war, the United States’ outlook on new ventures has become much more stymied than those prior to the invasions in the Middle East.  Despite the partisan vote in committee, the full body and Congress as a whole will not vote on the measure until January when the new Congress convenes.  Many believe this is the most appropriate measure rather than having several outgoing members approve a new war that could last years, while others believe Congress, and the administration, has been derelict in their duties of constitutional war making powers.

One of the obstacles regarding the entire AUMF process is the ambiguity surrounding the overall strategy of the administration.  Many have called into question the metrics of how the administration has gone about degrading and ultimately destroying the Islamic State, which is the main goal of the administration as orated by President Obama several times.  Typically, past administrations have sent Congress language for the type of military authorization they desire, however, the administration has failed to do so thus far.  When pressed on this issue, Secretary of State John Kerry responded to several members of Congress last week at a hearing regarding an Islamic State specific AUMF that Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez’s (D-NJ) proposal was a good point to work from despite minor technical disagreements.  Though, Menendez did not introduce his proposal until very recently, which does not provide a valid excuse for what some deem a lack of leadership from the president in failing to provide Congress with a direction.

The Washington Post‘s editorial board also pointed out that the lack of direction from the administration has contributed to a failure to reach an agreement thus far.  “The Foreign Relations Committee’s incoming chair, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), says he wants to see the administration spell out a coherent plan for Syria,” the board wrote.  Secretary Kerry responded to similar criticism last week maintaining that there is nothing in the law that requires the administration to take the lead on the AUMF – he then pressed the committee that Congress could have approved one of several measures that have been introduced in an attempt to shift the onus back to Congress.

Even more intriguing, was Secretary Kerry’s response during last week’s hearing regarding a hypothetical about what the administration would do if they do not get authorization from Congress.  Secretary Kerry stated that the administration does have the authorization derived from the 2001 and 2002 AUMF to continue the operations – not a new development – but ironic in the sense that he was acting as the administration’s representative in front of Congress asking for an authorization but also saying that the military campaign can continue even if they don’t get one.

It is not likely that the 114th Congress, which will be controlled entirely by Republicans, will adopt Menendez’s bill that passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.  Likely, they will debate and vote on a separate proposal.  Another key point of contention among Democrats and Republicans, that could contribute to a renewed debate in the new Congress, are certain limits on geography and ground troops.  As the Post’s editorial board wrote, “Both the Obama administration and Republicans objected to limits the legislation placed on the use of ground forces.”  Secretary Kerry at last week’s hearing, while firmly reiterating the president’s pledge for no combat troops on the ground, rejected any type of limit in a new AUMF to the use of ground forces, geography, or even a time limit.  Secretary Kerry received push back from Democrats on the committee for asking for what they called and open ended authorization.

This back and forth is deeply troubling on a very basic level because a seemingly bipartisan and routine process of approving military action has become very partisan and secretive.  As McClatchy‘s Nancy A. Youssef outlined, the administration’s secrecy in the offensive against the Islamic State has made it difficult to track the effort’s progress.  “The dearth of information by which to judge the conflict is one of the difficulties for those trying to track progress in it. The U.S. military, which started out announcing every air mission almost as soon as it ended, now publishes roundups of airstrikes three times a week…In previous recent wars, the military offered either regular updates or a chance for reporters to embed with troops and see the conflict for themselves. But with the war primarily an air campaign or involving famously secretive special operators, that access isn’t available. There are no extra seats on the fighter jets for reporters, and the furtive special forces now training Iraqi troops aren’t allowing journalists to join them.”

The administration’s offensive effort against the Islamic State is entering its fourth month without an overt and specific congressional authorization.  The executive and legislative branch seem to be at odds in many regards to specifics for a new authorization.  Despite the administration’s interpretation that they currently possess legal cover for their offensive, they maintain that such a campaign would be stronger with congressional support – but again, it’s not necessary.  Furthermore, this struggle does not send a positive message to global partners because the government cannot seem to get on the same page.  The Post‘s editorial board said it correctly when they wrote, “Putting off an authorization makes both the Obama administration and Congress less accountable for what is likely to be a long and difficult conflict. Rather than continue to dodge their legal and political duty, the White House and congressional leaders should make passage of a war authorization one of the first acts of the next Congress.”  A congressional authorization is long overdue and it should never have come to the next Congress.