U.S. soldiers march to a CH-47 Chinook helicopter that will return them to Kandahar Army Air Field, 4 September 2003
This article is a counterpoint to Demetri Papageorgiou’s The Makings of Another Forever War
The beloved Editor-in-Chief of this publication, Demetri Papageorgiou, gracious enough to promote me to Associate Editor, may come to rue the day he did so. With President Barack Obama’s recent request for a congressionally approved Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to legitimize American action against the Islamic State (IS) came a slew of op-eds dissecting the document from every conceivable angle. Into the verbal fray stepped Mr. Papageorgiou. While the writers and editors of The Diplomacist, a highly opinionated and articulate crowd, rarely cast down the gauntlet at each other’s feet, it is high time that one of us cried havoc.
On September 8, 2014 Mr. Papageorgiou first called for a new AUMF to replace the 2001 and 2002 authorizations being used to justify military action against IS. A similar point was raised on February 15, 2015 in a critique of the weaknesses of the Obama administration’s recently proposed AUMF. Both pieces offer the refrain “Straightforward, right?” as a means of editorial solidarity with those who may be baffled by the AUMF draft and its shaky legal underpinnings. Allow me to provide an answer to this otherwise rhetorical inquiry.
The matter is indeed straightforward, far more so than it initially appears. Debates surrounding the various AUMF’s tend to be heavily focused on legality, a waste of much ink and paper. While these authorizations may in letter be legal, they are political in spirit. Their primary purpose is to serve political ends, and nakedly so at that. From the standpoint of American politics, Obama’s proposed draft is tactically brilliant.
Obama does not care about the legality of actions taken against the Islamic State, rather viewing congressional approval as a sufficient but not necessary condition for using force abroad. In a strikingly blunt letter to Congress accompanying his draft AUMF, Obama indicated that he regarded the document as an unnecessary courtesy to Congress rather than an essential component of the American strategy.
As Mr. Papageorgiou notes, Obama has made it quite clear that he believes that he has the authority to continue operations in the Middle East under the 2001 AUMF for engaging al-Qaeda and its affiliates and supporters as well as under Article II of the Constitution, through which he has emergency powers as Commander-in-Chief. Regardless of whether his draft is approved, Obama will carry on the fight.
Indeed, by waiting until military operations had already begun, Obama presented a Republican Congress with a fait accompli. With a majority of Americans in favor of employing some kind of force against IS, members of Congress can hardly vote to prematurely end the popular campaign. Had Obama sought approval before the effort began, Congress could have at least negotiated with him and likely gained some concessions. Now, the die is cast, and Congress cannot scale back ongoing operations without appearing weak and ineffectual.
This is a contest between not only a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, however, but between the executive and legislative branches as well. Should Congress fail to pass an AUMF the public deems proportional to the perceived IS threat, it will be a victory for not only the Democratic Party, but the executive branch as well. Such an outcome would make Republicans appear obtuse and maddeningly partisan while the entire legislative branch would once again be seen as useless by the general public.
Such a double victory is unlikely to fall into Obama’s lap, however. And the alternative — approving the draft AUMF or amending and then approving it — has serious drawbacks as well. The current draft does not repeal the 2001 AUMF, meaning that the new AUMF would be irrelevant before the ink was dry. Congress must revise the draft as proposed to include a repeal of the 2001 AUMF, or else render the new one and any other amendments it desires to add superfluous. If it does add such a repeal, however, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner will have his and his party’s names on the document alongside President Obama’s. If things go poorly against IS, at which time Obama will likely be out of office, then it is the Republican-controlled Congress that will pay the bulk of the price at the polls.
The draft also currently contains a three-year sunset clause, ensuring that it will expire in the middle of campaign season for the 2018 midterm elections. Its expiration will turn these midterms into a referendum on the perceived success or failure of the campaign against IS, which could have serious repercussions for the next president and the dominant party in Congress if substantive progress is not perceived to have been made against the insurgent organization.
Additionally, Obama’s AUMF draft is a semantically nuanced work. Ever the lawyer, Obama has put forth a proposal that would grant him and his predecessor a broad mandate for action. As written, the AUMF would disallow “enduring offensive” action, in turn allowing actions that are long-term yet billed as defensive or neutral — such as any humanitarian or advisory initiatives — or offensive yet short — including any special forces raid.
With ample room to maneuver, Obama could react to all manner of contingencies on short notice without the infusion of large numbers of ground troops. While this is militarily helpful, it is also politically essential. The American public will tolerate neither large troop deployments nor many casualties, requiring Obama to be creative in the means he utilizes to combat IS.
With bombs falling across Syria and Iraq, American politicians are only just beginning to sharpen the long knives for their own showdown. Obama has moved aggressively, forcing his political opponents to react to his plans rather than implement their own. It is clear that the AUMF debate has little to do with legal matters, instead serving more Machiavellian ends. While the politics themselves may appear murky and convoluted, the nature of the issue is rather straightforward.
Chris Newton is a senior Political Science major and International Development Studies minor at the University of Notre Dame.
Image Attribution: “Berkas:US 10th Mountain Division soldiers in Afghanistan” by SSG KYLE DAVIS, licensed under Public Domain