White House: The 2001 AUMF targeting Al Qaeda lets us target Al Qaeda's enemy, ISIS, too

Eli Lake frames his new story as a question — “Is Obama’s New War Against ISIS Illegal?” — but there’s really no question about it.

Now Obama is asserting that this broad resolution, which has been invoked by Obama and his predecessor to justify attacking al Qaeda-linked groups all over the Islamic world, would also apply to a terrorist organization that is itself at war with al Qaeda.

The AUMF from 2001 is a declaration of war against al Qaeda and its associated forces. In 2013 ISIS split from al Qaeda and has even attacked al Qaeda’s official franchise in Syria known as al-Nusra Front. Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, after pleading with ISIS to leave Syria to al-Nusra, formally kicked the group out of al Qaeda this year…

[Benjamin] Wittes said that he took an expansive view of what would constitute associated forces for the 2001 AUMF. But he observed, “Surely associated forces doesn’t mean forces that are actively hostile and have publicly broken with and been repudiated by al Qaeda. Whatever ‘associated’ means, I don’t think it means that.”

Oh well: “We believe he can rely on the 2001 AUMF for the airstrikes he is authorizating against ISIL,” a senior administration official told Lake and other reporters yesterday. In other words, a guy who campaigned as the alternative to executive-run-amok George Bush wants to take a law that was passed after 9/11 for the purpose of destroying Al Qaeda and turn it into an all-purpose license to attack jihadi groups everywhere, even if Al Qaeda is fighting them too. By that logic, I guess, Obama could also use the 2001 AUMF as authorization to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. After all, Iran and AQ have been “associated” at times in the name of attacking common enemies.

Am I hallucinating here, by the way? Is this not the same guy who said this last year?

I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.

The [2001] AUMF is now nearly 12 years old. The Afghan war is coming to an end. Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.

So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further.

Last year he was hinting that the 2001 AUMF might not authorize war against every Al Qaeda offshoot and that we’re probably better off scrapping the law altogether lest we descend into perpetual war. Now not only are we keeping the law (which Obama could all but repeal himself, as Wittes explained last year), he’s claiming it authorizes wars against groups that have formally split with Al Qaeda and shed the name. You might think last night’s speech would have been the moment for O to make the case why “Al Qaeda” in 2001 somehow means “ISIS” in 2014, but the closest he came to that was an afterthought at the beginning of his remarks in which he described ISIS as “formerly Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq.” If even he recognizes that the groups aren’t associated anymore, how does the AUMF still apply?

Absent an AUMF, the only time the president can act militarily under the War Powers Act is when action is needed to stop “an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” in the words of Barack Obama 2008. Does ISIS present an imminent threat? Nope, not according to U.S. intelligence agencies. “It’s hard to imagine a better indication of the ability of elected officials and TV talking heads to spin the public into a panic,” said one counterterror specialist to the NYT, “with claims that the nation is honeycombed with sleeper cells, that operatives are streaming across the border into Texas or that the group will soon be spraying Ebola virus on mass transit systems — all on the basis of no corroborated information.” Hawks and fans of executive power like Obama and Marco Rubio love to emphasize the alleged immediacy of the threat because they know the public will conclude that things are too urgent for a few weeks of debate in Congress. The president must act now.

That’s sheer nonsense in ISIS’s case but it’s effective rhetorically in disguising what Obama’s actually up to here. He’s spent six years using, and even expanding, the counterterror tools that Bush gave him, but not until now did he take the final step and adopt Bush’s view of war itself. Obama isn’t responding to an “immediate” threat against the U.S. in hitting ISIS; he’s engaging in preemptive war to try to neutralize what will, sooner or later (likely sooner), become a grave strategic threat. It’s like trying to oust the Taliban circa 1998 for fear of what terrorists based in Afghanistan might eventually do to America — or, if you prefer, like ousting Saddam circa 2003 for fear of what he might eventually do to America with his weapons program. Obama’s going to hit ISIS before cells nurtured in their territory hit us, and good for him. But let’s not kid ourselves what this means: If, as Conor Friedersdorf says, Obama’s now willing to preemptively attack a brutal Iraqi enemy for fear of what he might do down the line to America and its interests, he should have also supported the war in Iraq in 2003. ISIS doesn’t have WMD either (we hope) and their nascent terror-state surely has a much shorter reach internationally right now than Saddam’s terror-state did. Why oppose Bush then if you’re willing to punch ISIS now? Was it a pure question of the scale of American military assets being brought to bear? Friedersdorf doesn’t get it and neither do I.

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David Strom 5:21 PM on December 09, 2022