Congress Approaches Stalemate on War Authorization

 In Iraq

As Congress begins to debate a war authorization, it’s become obvious that the debate has become a Goldilocks story without the “just right” part. Republicans think the President’s approach to an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) is too restrictive and Democrats think it’s too open-ended and vague.

One complicating factor is that the administration, in pushing for the war authorization,  has been continually framing the bill as a “send a message” bill. Administration voices — from  Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to the White House spokesperson Josh Earnest  — have argued that Congress needs to “send a strong message to ISIS and U.S. allies about America’s commitment to defeat ISIS.”

If Congress just want to “send a message” they could take a cue from Senator Tom Cotton and his 46 pals and just write a letter to ISIS.  But if the goal is for Congress to weigh in with genuine war powers oversight eight months after the start of hostilities, the bill needs to set boundaries for the war in meaningful ways.

Most Republicans want an even more vague and open-ended bill than the administration. Jaime Fuller, writing in New York magazine laid out the Republican point of view as it pushes in one direction on the AUMF:

Led by Senator John McCain, chair of the Armed Services Committee, and his 2016 dream candidate Senator Lindsey Graham, this group thinks that the draft AUMF should give Obama more power when it comes to fighting ISIS. These two might not agree with the president on any domestic policies, but they tend to give the executive branch more leeway when it comes to conducting war. And, they still get to disagree with Obama, since he hasn’t taken them up on their offer.

“In my view,” McCain said to reporter Dave Weigel in February, “it should not constrain the president of the United States, and it should not be specific to ISIS. He was elected by the American people. The Constitution of the United States says that he is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. We cannot set the precedent of constraining the president of the United States.”

The more Democratic side (which at times includes Rand Paul) is pushing in the other direction. This side contains a number of members of Congress who think the authorization is to vague and too open-ended.  This side was probably not pleased when the White House spokesperson acknowledged that the AUMF was “intentional fuzzy” to give the president “flexibility”.  Then there are the specific clauses such as where the administration’s bill bars “enduring ground combat operations” and where it allows the war to go after ISIS’s “associated forces” that leave many Democrats scratching their heads about what those words actually mean in the real world.

Senator Paul actually highlighted one of the most egregious problems in the President’s AUMF. The bill fails to sunset the vague and stale 2001 Bush War on Terror AUMF. The administration and some in Congress say that the current hostilities are covered by that war authorization (even though ISIS has little directly to do with Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks). But then why bother with this new authorization? Congress really must repeal that bill to make the current AUMF exercise meaningful. As Senator Paul said:

It’s disdainful to say, ‘Well, you know, we want y’all to pass something, but it doesn’t really matter because we’ll just use 2001,’ which is just absurd,” Mr. Paul said. “And it just means that Congress is inconsequential.”

What’s not really being debated is whether or not a large-scale U.S. led war on ISIS is the best way to deal with the ISIS problem. That’s why Congress has war powers: Should the country be at war period? By making the war a fait accompli the American people are being denied that critical debate. Peace Action West would like to see more members of Congress point out that 14 years after the War on Terror that groups like Al-Qaeda, the Taliban as well ISIS still exist. We’d like members of Congress to ask if it’s possible that U.S. intervention might actually strengthen terrorist forces. It would be better late than never for that critical debate.

Ironically it was Secretary Kerry, whose job is to defend the war, who made Peace Action West’s key argument that military force can backfire when it comes to terrorism. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he was arguing against a large-scale U.S. invasion but his point could be applied to U.S. airstrikes as well:

“The enduring transformation that has to take place is not going to take place if the United States just comes in and knocks out ISIL. We could do that. We have that capacity – but we are not asking to do that nor are they asking for us to do that — because the implications of that would be to aid in the recruitment (for ISIS) and create a bigger problem than we face today,”

That’s the problem. Whether it’s a ground occupation or airstrikes, blunt military power inevitably causes destruction and civilian casualties that can strengthen insurgencies and terrorist movements. Bombing too could create “a bigger problem than we face today.” That’s a lesson that Mr. Kerry and Mr. Obama understand, and many members of Congress understand, but they are not applying it to the situation in Iraq and Syria. We’ve stumbled into another war and it’s time for members of Congress to push alternatives to a military approach that will end up in another counterproductive quagmire without having actually made Americans — or anyone else — safer.

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