During Barack Obama’s final months in office, he pushed hard for Congress to revise the Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMFs) governing the war on terror. His secretary of defense at the time, Ash Carter, didn’t think it was necessary, but Obama wanted a new AUMF that would put limits on his range of action — and perhaps more importantly, on the range of possible action for his successor. The effort died in the final year of the Obama presidency as overseas operations against ISIS expanded.
Since then, though, Congress has kicked around the idea of rewriting the AUMFs to cover current operations and to provide limits on presidential authority to expand them. Senate Foreign Relations chair Bob Corker, who will shortly retire, has finally proposed a new version to replace the 2001 and 2003 authorizations, but it’s not making too many people happy:
The long-awaited draft authorization to set new guidelines on the 17-year-old war on terrorism was released Monday night by senators and, to the displeasure of some Democrats, it would not impose significant restrictions on military operations, such as an expiration date.
The bipartisan Authorization for Use of Military Force of 2018 would repeal and replace the 2001 AUMF, which has been increasingly criticized for its expansive justification of all kinds of military actions against extremist groups that did not exist at the time of the 9/11 attacks. The new AUMF would also repeal the 2002 authorization that enabled the 2003 Iraq War. …
Even in committee, the prospects for approval are uncertain, with at least one Republican, Rand Paul of Kentucky, criticizing any measure that does not dramatically constrain counterterrorism operations in the Middle East and elsewhere. And several Democrats are also likely to oppose the compromise measure, given its lack of a hard sunset provision.
Corker said prospects for a Senate floor vote likely hinge on securing committee passage of his resolution by a wide margin. “What matters on things like this is if they pass with a degree of support,” said the chairman, who is retiring at the end of the year. “If it’s a nail-biter … they [Republican leaders] think it’s not something that’s really successful; there’s less reason to bring it up.”
The White House doesn’t like it much better, although for different reasons. Last summer they concluded that the current AUMFs suffice for all of their counter-terror operations. If it ain’t broke, one administration official told Roll Call, there’s no need to fix it:
The Trump administration is taking a tepid line on an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) measure introduced Monday evening by Republican and Democratic senators, with a National Security Council official saying the president’s existing war powers are “sufficient.”
“Our position hasn’t changed,” the official said Tuesday. The 2001 AUMF, provisions in the U.S. Constitution and the force-authorization measure Congress passed and President George W. Bush made law before the 2003 Iraq war are “sufficient,” the NSC official added.
Go figure that the executive branch doesn’t want its wings clipped. Unlike the efforts in 2015-16, though, this proposal doesn’t do a whole lot of clipping at all. It constrains the use of the AUMF to attack foreign governments such as Syria without a separate authorization from Congress; that’s the issue driving the push now. (Iran might be another potential conflict that Congress wants to approve first.) Otherwise, it’s more or less business as usual, with the addition of consulting Congress when designating “associate forces” related to either al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban. Democrats have even conceded on the use of ground troops in any revised AUMF, which is a change from the previous debates:
Democrats in previous AUMF debates have pushed for more restrictive language on the deployment of large numbers of U.S. troops, but Kaine said he, and he suspects others, have come around on the idea.
“We do not have a tactical limitation,” the Virginia Democrat said. “I’ve become convinced in talking to colleagues and others … [that] Congress is the initiator but tactical decisions should be made by the commander in chief.”
It’s the expiration date that’s the biggest issue, though. It has no explicit expiration date, although it does have a process for congressional review every four years. That puts the onus on Congress to repeal it rather than the executive branch to give justifications for renewing it. Go figure, again, that Congress would rather put the political onus on the executive rather than on themselves. It’s like a game of Hot Potato.
It’s not just Rand Paul and the Democrats opposing the AUMF proposal. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), who sits on Corker’s committee, told Fox News that the proposal is an “authorization for the use of not much force.” Looks like we’re still partying like it’s 2001.