Talk of the Middle East dominated Capitol Hill this week. But while the media and congressional Republicans flocked to the Capitol to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver his contentious address, the real discoveries were being made in a House Armed Services Committee hearing across the street.
During the hearing, President Obama’s undersecretary for defense, Christine Wormouth, admitted that the request for a new authorization for use of military force (AUMF) sent to Congress was purposefully vague, meant to give the White House the ability to wage wide war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and associated groups. But such ambiguity effectively expands the president’s war powers while undermining Congress’s constitutional responsibility to exercise certain integral oversight.Generally, if you’re sincere in asking for permission to do something, you don’t ask more than six months after you start that something. But that’s the case with the AUMF against ISIS, which authorizes a war Obama actually started waging in August of last year. Six months ago, however, the president didn’t have a Republican majority in both chambers of Congress – a Republican majority seemingly hell-bent on continuing a legacy of never-ending U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
The truth is, we’re already at war. By asking for the authorization to use military force in such a manner, the White House is acting as if the AUMF against ISIS is a mere technicality, some paperwork they didn’t get to on time but finished eventually. But in reality, the consequences could be much darker, because if Congress approves the AUMF as it stands, this president—and those who come after him—will be able to wage a war unlimited by geographical distances, with no defined enemy or length.
As proposed by the Obama administration, the AUMF includes four parameters that effectively make it a blank check for waging war: a vague condition on the use of ground forces; an ambiguous allowance to target “associated forces” linked to ISIS; a lack of geographical limits for military action; and a sunset clause prone to rubber-stamp renewal.Currently, the proposed AUMF does not authorize the use of U.S. Armed Forces in “enduring offensive ground combat operations,” but it fails to define just what “enduring” means. Is it one year, two years, three years, five years, more? Congress isn’t likely to do much to hone that definition, either, considering some Republican leaders, including Sen. John McCain, would prefer to put no limit whatsoever on the type of forces the president can deploy.
But by claiming that such a limit – and it’s really not a limit at all – is a breach of the president’s abilities as Commander-in-Chief, Sen. McCain is ignoring an important constitutional responsibility of Congress: to provide checks and balances to the executive power wielded by a president. When it comes to war powers and military action in the last 14 years, Congress has been all too eager to abdicate that responsibility.
In addition to lacking specifics on the kind of U.S. forces that could be used, Obama’s AUMF fails to designate just who the American military would be fighting and where war could be waged. The president would be able to take military action against “associated forces” without any geographic limit.
According to intelligence sources, ISIS is currently operating in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, and the Philippines. When Congress passed a comparable AUMF in 2001, paving the way for the war in Afghanistan, similar vague wording took the conflict far afield from the Taliban and al-Qaeda and eventually included forces in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. Likewise, presidents interpreted overbroad provisions in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, keeping us in Vietnam for dozens of years and expanding that armed conflict into Laos and Cambodia. By expanding the authorization of military intervention to include associated forces without geographical limits, the scale of warfare is too unchecked to be allowable.Some would point to the three-year authorization period of the AUMF as if it were an escape hatch, a way to obfuscate and redeem the proposal’s other failures. But sunset provisions like this one just don’t work. The PATRIOT Act included a similar sunset, but it is continually renewed. Based on past experience and in the context of the other provisions of the AUMF, a sunset provision would only serve as cover for liberal or moderate members of Congress to vote in favor of war. We shouldn’t look the other way as Congress makes promises with its fingers crossed.
For the last 14 years, we’ve seen the consequences of overbroad, reactionary authorizations of military force. The 2001 AUMF led to escalation after escalation of war, largely contributing to the growth of the force we now turn to face. What President Obama is proposing is a war without boundaries and without a timetable, without limits on the scale or extent of military operations. Congress needs to stand up and say enough is enough by refusing to authorize this conflict and finally revoking the 2001 AUMF that has given the president cover to wage this war for the last six months.
Michael Ratner is President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He and CCR are the US attorneys for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.