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Authorization to Use Military Force Against ISIL: What the President Wants and Why it Doesn’t Matter

Matt Matechik

What did President Obama “ask” Congress?

On February 11, 2015 President Obama formally approached Congress and implicitly sought their approval to use American military force against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Specifically, the President submitted a draft joint resolution Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) and encouraged Congress in a formal letter to pass it.[i]

If passed in its current draft form (highly unlikely), the AUMF would grant the President Congressional approval to use American military forces against ISIL “and associated persons or forces” for a period of up to three years. The draft does not impose any geographic restrictions. Therefore, the President would be authorized to conduct military operations against ISIL in Iraq, Syria, Libya (where ISIL appears to have gained a foothold[ii]) and absolutely anywhere else in the world he deems “necessary and appropriate.”[iii] (NOTE: The AUMF only gives the President the domestic legal authority to enter into either Iraq, Syria, Libya, or other states. This blog will not deal with the international authority the President has to do so.)

Although the draft AUMF would not limit the location of military operations, it does purport to limit their scope. The draft prohibits activity that rises to the level of “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”[iv] The administration claims that this phrase prohibits large-scale long-term military campaigns such as those recently conducted by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the stipulation would not prohibit the use of ground forces for less involved purposes such as rescue operations and pursuit of ISIL leadership. Additionally, the AUMF would allow “the use of U.S. forces in situations where ground combat operations are not expected or intended, such as intelligence collection and sharing, missions to enable kinetic strikes, or… other forms of… assistance to partner forces.[v]

This draft language, even with the limitation, is actually very broad, despite what some members of Congress are claiming. The draft intentionally uses open-ended phrasing that President Obama could potentially cite in committing American forces to ground combat.

AUMF ISIS Blog

Why did the President reach out to Congress?

President Obama approached Congress as part of his “commitment to working with Congress… to authoriz[e] the continued use of military force to degrade and defeat ISIL.” The President urged Congress to “join [him] in supporting our Nation’s security… which would show the world we are united in our resolve to counter the threat posed by ISIL.”[vi]

Did the President really “ask” Congress for anything?

No! The language of President Obama’s letter to Congress is extremely precise. A careful reading reveals that the President is not actually asking Congress for anything at all. To the contrary, the letter explicitly states that he already has all the authority he needs.[vii] The President is simply inviting Congress to provide their stamp of approval for military action that he is already undertaking and presumably will continue to undertake with or without Congress.

President Obama’s posture is not surprising. Historically, the sitting President, no matter his party, and Congress have performed a delicate dance around the subject of who controls the use of American military force abroad. The tension between the executive and legislative branches stems from the Constitution, which confers upon the President unspecified powers commensurate with the title “Commander in Chief” while endowing Congress with numerous specific war powers including, but not limited to, the power to “declare war” and “organize, fund, and maintain the nation’s armed forces.”[viii]

What about the War Powers Resolution?

This “dance” took on its modern form in 1973 when Congress passed the War Powers Resolution (WPR) to “to insure that the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply to the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, and to the continued use of such forces in hostilities or in such situations.”[ix] The WPR, at least on paper, requires the President to involve Congress at various points before, during, and after his decision to use force. One of its most controversial provisions requires the President to terminate military action within sixty days of its initiation unless Congress has declared war, extended the sixty-day period, is physically unable to meet, or provided statutory authorization.[x]

In practice, the WPR has done little to prevent the President from unilaterally committing American forces to foreign theatres. The sitting President, no matter his party, typically finds some way to circumvent the WPR’s purpose of involving Congress while still purporting to be consistent with the WPR. The President usually claims he already has all the authority he needs by virtue of his title as Commander in Chief and/or he interprets a statute in a particular way to find the Congressional approval he needs.

AUMF ISIS Blog 2

Sixty Days?! Haven’t we been fighting ISIL for months?!

Yes! The present scenario illustrates the WPR’s questionable influence. President Obama initiated a sustained air campaign against ISIL targets in Syria on September 22, 2015.[xi] Since that time there has been no declaration of war, no extension of the sixty-day period, and no problems with Congress meeting. Under the WPR, President Obama therefore has two choices: obtain Congressional statutory approval for the military action sixty days after initiation or terminate the mission. And yet, only now, 142 days later, far past the sixty-day deadline, is the President seeking statutory authorization and, as noted above, he is not truly even asking for it.[xii]

It should be noted that President Obama’s apparent disregard for the WPR is not unique to his administration. President George H.W. Bush ordered thousands of American servicemen to Somalia during December 1992 without explicit approval from Congress. He “found” statutory approval for the military deployment by broadly interpreting a statute that supported a US humanitarian mission in Somalia. President Bill Clinton ordered over 20,000 American troops to invade Haiti during September 1994 without explicit approval from Congress. His primary argument for nixing Congress was that the operation did not rise to the level of “war” requiring a declaration and therefore Congress need not be involved. These are only a few examples of many.

What happens now?

War (at least the political kind)! Congress must debate the draft AUMF and then either pass it as written, pass it with changes, or pass no AUMF at all. Ultimately, whatever Congress decides will not matter. If they pass any AUMF, the granted authority will be largely for symbolic purposes only. If they do not pass an AUMF, it is all but certain that President Obama will continue to commit American forces to the fight anyway. For the President, it’s a win-win. He will either by a wartime Commander-in-Chief enjoying the support of Congress as he battles America’s enemies abroad or he will be the President who was willing to stand up to the evil that is ISIL when Congress seemingly refused.

AUMF ISIS Blog 3

The political game surrounding the draft AUMF is likely to continue for some time. Politicians will squabble and legal scholars will debate the legal powers of he executive and legislative branches. Meanwhile, the United States is already at war with ISIL, regardless of who formally signs off on it, and will be for the foreseeable future.

Matthew Matechik is an Evening J.D. student at the University of Baltimore School of Law (Class of 2016). He currently works full-time for the U.S. Federal Government as a Counterterrorism Analyst. He has a Bachelors of Arts (Magna Cum Laude, 2008) from Florida State University. All views in this blog post are Matthew’s own views and do not represent that of the U.S. Government. 

[i] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/11/letter-president-authorization-use-united-states-armed-forces-connection

[ii] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/islamic-state/11418966/Islamic-State-planning-to-use-Libya-as-gateway-to-Europe.html

[iii] http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/aumf_02112015.pdf

[iv] http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/aumf_02112015.pdf

[v] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/11/letter-president-authorization-use-united-states-armed-forces-connection

[vi] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/11/letter-president-authorization-use-united-states-armed-forces-connection

[vii] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/11/letter-president-authorization-use-united-states-armed-forces-connection

[viii]  U.S. Const., art. II, § 2, cl. 1, U.S. Const., art. I, § 8, cls. 1114.

[ix] 50 U.S.C.A. § 1541.

[x] 50 U.S.C.A. § 1544.

[xi] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/23/statement-president-airstrikes-syria

[xii] President Obama seems to be keeping the 2001 AUMF in his back pocket to claim Congressional authorization even if Congress does not pass an ISIL-specific AUMF. The 2001 AUMF authorized the President to use force against “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11,  2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any  future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” The Obama administration suggested as early as September 2014 that they could rely on the 2001 AUMF. See http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/23/background-conference-call-airstrikes-syria. This position is problematic given that ISIL, a new group distinct from al-Qaida, had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks.

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