WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama officially asked Congress on Wednesday to authorize a three-year limited war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), kicking off what is likely to be a fraught debate on Capitol Hill about the United States’ engagement in another Middle East conflict.
The White House unveiled the draft of a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) after weeks of negotiations with lawmakers — but both Democrats and Republicans have already begun to express qualms. In addition to putting a three-year limit on military operations against ISIL, the proposal includes a provision that would prevent the armed forces from being a part of “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” The latest AUMF would repeal the authorization for the use of military force of 2002, which sanctioned the United States’ decade-long war in Iraq.
Recognizing Americans’ war-weariness after prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the White House is seeking to prove that this military venture would be limited.
“My administration's draft AUMF would not authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operations like those our nation conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Obama wrote in a letter to lawmakers.
Nevertheless, the White House’s draft proposal does not restrict the fight against ISIL to a certain geographic area. Nor does it repeal the 2001 AUMF, which was hastily passed just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks and has given George W. Bush’s and Obama’s administrations wide latitude to conduct operations around the globe — including those in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, where no formal declaration of war exists.
“Although my proposed AUMF does not address the 2001 AUMF, I remain committed to working with the Congress and the American people to refine, and ultimately repeal, the 2001 AUMF,” Obama wrote. “Enacting an AUMF that is specific to the threat posed by ISIL could serve as a model for how we can work together to tailor the authorities granted by the 2001 AUMF.”
The Obama administration’s request is unusual in that it is asking for retroactive permission from Congress; the United States began its military campaign against ISIL nearly six months ago. The White House has repeatedly stated that it has the authority under previous statutes to do so, but analysts said it is looking for an additional show of support and to bring lawmakers into the fold.
“This is more about securing political backing than about securing legal backing,” said Matthew Waxman, a law professor at Columbia University who specializes in national security and constitutional powers. “The president has argued he already has a legal basis for operations there, but he wants an even stronger legal basis, and he wants to get members of Congress to register their support for the strategy there.”
Concerns about the resolution’s scope have already begun to percolate in Congress. Some Democrats say the authorization remains too broad and the restrictions put in place do not go far enough. Some Republicans say the resolution will hamstring the military in its battle against ISIL by putting in hard and fast rules about ground troops and the duration of the engagement.
“Congress is very engaged, and it’s very interesting to see the president deal with opposition from two flanks — those who see his proposal as not aggressive enough and those who see it as too aggressive,” Waxman said. “Trying to find something that gets the necessary votes is difficult.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters Wednesday that while he was pleased that Congress was finally going to weigh in on the military campaign, he had qualms with the imprecise nature of some of the language in the proposal.
“I’m concerned about the breadth and vagueness of the ground troop language,” he said. “The limitation against enduring offensive ground combat operations suggesting that all defensive ground combat operations are OK. Since everybody works for the Department of Defense, allowing defensive actions without any additional explanation is pretty broad. And ‘enduring’ is also a term that is not defined, so that raises some concerns for me.”
The president’s letter to lawmakers said that ground combat operations would be permitted in other miscellaneous situations, including rescue operations involving American or coalition personnel, in special operation raids against ISIL leadership and in intelligence collection and sharing.
“Scope is going to be an issue, duration is going to be an issue, and the nature of enduring combat is going to be a big issue here,” said Gordon Adams, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at American University.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner, meanwhile, called for more flexibility to be given to the military to ensure the ultimate success of the mission. “I’m not sure that the strategy that’s been outlined will accomplish the mission the president says he wants to accomplish,” he told reporters Wednesday. “And his point, the president’s point is that he wants to dismantle and destroy [ISIL]. I haven’t seen a strategy yet that I think will accomplish that.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest emphasized in a briefing to reporters that the draft resolution was only the beginning of negotiations and said he expected other versions to be floated in the coming weeks as Congress holds hearings and debates the matter.
“This reflects a starting point in the conversation, but this starting point was arrived at after extensive consultations,” he said.