Reform the war on terror: How Obama can better his legacy with AUMF reform

President Obama says he'll "engage" with Congress about authorizing the ISIS war. This one's important

Published November 10, 2014 5:00PM (EST)

Barack Obama                            (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Barack Obama (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

One of the few bits of new information President Obama unveiled at his post-election press conference was that he would begin "engaging" with congressional leaders about drafting a new authorization for the fight against ISIS. (Or ISIL, IS, or the Electric Boogaloo Terrorism Squad, etc.) We'll see, over the course of the next months or year, whether said "engagement" results in an updated AUMF signed by the president, or if the administration's rationale for using military force in Iraq and Syria continues to rest on a loose reading of a narrowly targeted law passed 13 years ago.

If -- if -- Obama and the Republican Congress can "update" the 2001 AUMF against al-Qaida and its supporters, sunset the 2002 AUMF against Iraq, and produce something that more accurately resembles the current war-making landscape, then he'll have a significant piece of legislation to add to his legacy: call it war on terror reform.

Let's just hope he's able, or wants, to do it the right way.

The particulars will be sorted over time. In a follow-up question at the press conference, though, Obama indicated that he will be looking for something more like comprehensive AUMF reform, instead of just adding a new piece of paper to the existing pile.

[OBAMA:] With respect to the AUMF, we’ve already had conversations with members of both parties in Congress, and the idea is to right-size and update whatever authorization Congress provides to suit the current fight, rather than previous fights.

In 2001, after the heartbreaking tragedy of 9/11, we had a very specific set of missions that we had to conduct, and the AUMF was designed to pursue those missions. With respect to Iraq, there was a very specific AUMF.

We now have a different type of enemy. The strategy is different. How we partner with Iraq and other Gulf countries and the international coalition — that has to be structured differently. So it makes sense for us to make sure that the authorization from Congress reflects what we perceive to be not just our strategy over the next two or three months, but our strategy going forward.

There are a couple of conflicting takeaways here. One is that he's saying all the right things -- it is time to update the post-9/11 AUMFs to better reflect "our strategy going forward."

The other, though, is that he's implicitly admitting the shaky -- to put it generously -- legal ground on which his offensive against ISIS rests, a ground that his national security team publicly still insists is solid as a rock. He says that after 9/11, "[W]e had a very specific set of missions that we had to conduct, and the AUMF was designed to pursue those missions... We now have a different type of enemy." He's right! The 2001 AUMF was tailored and intended for the "very specific set of missions that we had to conduct" at the time, and now we have a "different type of enemy." Obama himself makes a great case for why the 2001 AUMF doesn't cover the fight against ISIS, even though the stated position of his administration is that it does. And if he doesn't get a new AUMF, he's going to continue waging the ISIS war under the old 2001 AUMF anyway, the same one that he's saying doesn't really "reflect" the current war. This is awkward. It would have been much better to get the new AUMF before his administration began waging open-ended aerial war in Iraq and Syria.

But better late than never. This isn't just about his presidency. It's about the office of the presidency, and how future presidents will and won't be able to continue waging the war against ISIS and whatever other jokers pop up.

Right now, the only thing preventing the deployment of ground combat troops to Iraq and Syria, in the White House's reasoning, is President Obama's judgment. He does probably think that a ground war in Iraq and Syria would be stupid -- it is, after all, an objectively stupid idea -- but that's not good enough. We're already seeing how, if left unchecked, the inevitable momentum of escalation asserts itself, no matter how confident the president is of his own intentions and agency.

The Defense Department waited all of three days after the election to announce that it would be deploying an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq to join the rest of the troops already there. They allegedly will be serving "in a non-combat role, to expand our advise and assist mission and initiate a comprehensive training effort for Iraqi forces." Uh-huh. Is that going to turn the tide against ISIS, another 1,500 personal trainers for the Iraqi forces? Maybe they'll need another 1,500 here, another 1,500 there, until all of a sudden you've assembled an American army in Iraq and it just might be easier to have them start doing the combat themselves. And then when President Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton turns up in the Oval Office in 2017, either could decide that they want to start things off with a bang and send an additional 50k troops, to fight in the Joint War in Iraq and Syria (JWIS).

Obama, in a nutshell, should get from Congress AUMF reform that bars the deployment of ground combat troops in the fight against ISIS. What he should avoid is one that codifies a more expansive war-making authority for the presidency.

Let's clarify this with real-world examples of existing legislation.

TYPE OF AUMF OBAMA SHOULD SEEK: the one introduced by Rep. Adam Schiff this fall. Here's how we described it at the time:

Congressman Adam Schiff has introduced an Authorization for Use of Military Force that appears to fit the bill. It would authorize the president to continue airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and launch airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. It would also sunset the 2002 AUMF for Iraq immediately. Both the 2001 AUMF (against al-Qaida and affiliates) and the new AUMF against ISIS in Syria and Iraq would sunset in 18 months, and Congress could vote again then on whether to renew them. And, crucially, it would not authorize the president to deploy “ground forces in a combat role.” It does leave some flexibility for other, specialized “boots on the ground,” such as “special operations forces or other forces that may be deployed in a training, advisory, or intelligence capacity.”

The only thing we'd add is some closure to the "non-combat role" loophole, given the sudden surge in noncombat troops to the region. Some number of trainers, intelligence gatherers, spotters and other "boots on the ground" can be permitted, but how about capping that number?

TYPE OF AUMF OBAMA SHOULD REJECT: The one introduced this fall by Rep. Frank Wolf, retiring Virginia congressman and dear friend to defense contractors headquartered in his backyard. This "super AUMF" gave the president the authority to do whatever the hell he wanted everywhere, forever. It's classic stuff:

IN GENERAL.—The President is authorized, with the close consultation, coordination, and cooperation with NATO and regional allies, to use all necessary and appropriate force against those countries, organizations, or persons associated with or supporting terrorist groups, including al Qaeda and its regional affiliates, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, al Shabaab, Boko Haram, and any other emerging regional terrorist groups that share a common violent extremist ideology with such terrorist groups, regional affiliates, or emerging terrorist groups, in order to eliminate all such terrorist groups and prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States or its allies by such terrorist groups, countries, organizations, or persons.

We're going to hazard a guess and suggest that leaders of the next Republican Congress, who allege not to have enough "trust" in this president to negotiate a comprehensive immigration reform bill with him, will somehow muster enough "trust" to push for as expansive a view of executive war-making power possible. They will gaze deep within this president's eyes and find the "trust" they need to grant defense contractors lucrative ground-war markets going forward.

Obama may be flattered by this sudden outpouring of "trust." Who wouldn't be? That's got to feel nice, after all these years. But if he does care about "right-sizing" presidential use-of-force powers, then he'll issue the veto threat and demand a more tailored, Schiff-style version.

We're not completely naive: Maybe Obama does want the sort of open-ended powers that the likes of Frank Wolf would bestow on him, and he doesn't care if the next president abuses them. If that's the case, then it's going to be the job of activists and concerned citizens everywhere to make a fuss, pressuring him to align his policy preferences with the ideals of his rhetoric.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

MORE FROM Jim Newell

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Adam Schiff Aumf Barack Obama Congress Editor's Picks Foreign Policy Frank Wolf Isis Terrorism War On Terror