Obama's retroactive request for war authority to combat Islamic State is 'puzzling'

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a gathering Jan. 27 in New Delhi. (CNS/Reuters/Ahmad Masood)

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a gathering Jan. 27 in New Delhi. (CNS/Reuters/Ahmad Masood)

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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In 2013, the Islamic State group began an extermination campaign in the Levant, ripping through Syria and later Iraq in a brutal effort to establish a caliphate. In August, the U.S. began dropping bombs in response.

Now, six months later, President Barack Obama is asking Congress for war authority in that fight.

While the threat the Islamic State poses is clear, the president's retroactive request for Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) could be described as confusing.

On the one hand, it proposes to sunset military action after three years and ban "enduring offensive ground operations." On the other, it contains no geographic limitations and uses foggy language like "enduring offensive ground operations."

It would put an end to a 2002 Iraq War AUMF. But it would let play a 2001 resolution authorizing the president "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons" who aided the 9/11 attacks "in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons," an extension of power that some worry grants the office of the executive a "heads, I win; tails, you lose" latitude that approaches carte blanche.

Now Congress finds itself divided, with doves "deeply suspicious" of open-ended commitments and hawks arguing that the president's request doesn't go far enough.

And yet, Congress ducked a vote on the Islamic State war authorization the first time around.

How are we supposed to makes sense of it all?

"I don't think you can make sense of it," said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

Zogby said he was "baffled" by the AUMF request. "And I think being baffled is the correct response," he added.

"What is a 'non-enduring ground presence' if not direct engagement of ground troops for a period of time?" he asked. "And what is a period of time?"

"There are so many holes here that will be a matter of debate for a long time to come and a matter of abuse, both for this president and the one that follows," Zogby said. "It's a hell of a time to ask for war authorization when you're already knee deep in it."

Chas Freeman, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs who was  U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, called the war authorization debate "puzzling."

"I think we have a constitutional crisis," he said. "The president is acting in ways which are contrary to the Constitution. But he's doing so in some respects by default because other constitutional authorities are not doing their part."

The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the responsibility of declaring war and articulating war objectives, Freeman said, while giving the president the responsibility of determining how to achieve those ends.

"But in this case, the roles are apparently reversed," he said. "The president has been fighting a war and determining the objectives and overall purpose of military action, and now Congress is discussing what restrictions to place on his use of force."

Freeman pinned blame on Obama, but also on Congress for dodging the question of authorization last year.

Asked about the controversy surrounding the 2001 authorization, he said: "Well, I think that issue is a joke inasmuch as the Congress won't stand up and be counted. What are they talking about, giving the president carte blanche? They won't have a vote."

Asked the same question, Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap Jr., executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at Duke University, wrote in an email to NCR that he doesn't think "the 2001 AUMF opens the door to 'unlimited' war as by its terms it is limited to al-Qaeda and associated forces, not every terrorist or wrongdoers on the planet."

"Indeed," he wrote, "one reason I believe a new AUMF is being sought is that ISIS [the Islamic State] has become sufficiently distinct from al-Qaeda as to raise questions as to the 2001 AUMF's applicability."

"No one likes the idea of continuously battling threats," Dunlap wrote, "but the reality is that threats cannot be unilaterally limited by some Congressional fiat as much as we might want that to be the case. Just because we tell ourselves that a war is 'over' doesn't make it so. The cruel truth is that the 'enemy gets a vote' and if they persist in presenting a threat, then we either give in to their demands, or we must defend ourselves for as long as that is the case."

From a just war perspective, "arguments have changed little since the United States started bombing ISIS last fall," wrote Gerard Powers, professor of the practice of Catholic peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute, in an email to NCR.

"Just cause, last resort and right intention would seem to be met," he wrote. "Legitimate authority, proportionality and probability of success are less clear."

In Iraq, "UN Security Council authorization is not necessary under international law since the United States has been invited to intervene by the recognized government of Iraq," Powers wrote. "But the moral and political legitimacy of the Iraqi government is a serious concern. ... Without a serious and sustained political strategy to build a more democratic, human-rights respecting, and effective government in Iraq, military force will be of only limited effectiveness against ISIS, whose strength is directly related to the Iraqi government's weakness."

In Syria, Powers saw a "connected, yet different problem."

"You have a failed government and an anarchic situation with hundreds of rebel groups of various stripes. The United States could intervene, but on whose behalf?"

"The United States faces a serious moral predicament," Powers wrote. "Because our past interventions helped create the current crisis, we have a moral obligation to act. Limited military intervention might be necessary. But without a change in the larger political dynamics, it will not likely be more successful than it has been up until now."

Zogby, too, saw a link between past U.S. actions and the current predicament.

"This is an evil group, this is an awful group," he said, "but the mistakes here go back to the beginning and have never correctly been addressed."

"We never should have gone into Iraq in the first place."

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is vrotondaro@ncronline.org.]

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