Congressional resistance to President Obama’s new war powers request has ballooned, with a growing number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle vowing to oppose it.

Conservative hawks are attacking from the right, saying the authority Obama requests would too tightly restrict the Pentagon. Liberal Democrats are attacking from the left, contending the limits are too loose to preclude another prolonged ground war…

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) said he wants all military options on the table so ISIS fighters will “sleep with one eye open because they fear” U.S. special forces might sweep in and put “a round of lead between their eyes.”…

“I can’t imagine Franklin D. Roosevelt standing up before the American people and say, ‘Here’s what I’m not going to do against the Japanese’ ” Salmon said.


President Obama’s request for new war powers against Islamic militants poses a major challenge for his closest ally on Capitol Hill: Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

Adding to her challenge in the current debate, Pelosi rose to power, in part, on her staunch opposition to the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Indeed, Pelosi voted against the resolution that authorized that invasion even as the top Democrats in each chamber — Sen. Tom Daschle (S.D.) and Rep. Dick Gephardt (Mo.) — joined the Republicans in supporting it.

The dynamics are very different now. Pelosi leads the party, and there’s a Democrat in the White House requesting new war powers, even as Americans are wary of a return to war after more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq…

The liberal critics have three chief concerns. They’re worried that there are no geographic restrictions in the new proposal; critical that the request doesn’t repeal the 2001 AUMF that authorized the invasion of Afghanistan; and concerned that language to prohibit “enduring offensive ground combat operations” is too vague to prevent another American ground war.


Obama doesn’t need an OK from Congress “because the president believes that Congress has already given him this authority” in the Constitution, said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. While congressional affirmation of the air war against ISIL, also known as ISIS, and the return of thousands of U.S. troops and advisers to Iraq is not constitutionally necessary, Obama said it would be a welcome show of unity…

The president described his administration’s draft AUMF as a compromise document specific enough to constrain his running room, and yet flexible enough to adapt to changing events and conditions. He said the limitations sought for the remainder of his presidency and the outset of the next administration create no deadlines or timetables for the mission, and don’t tie his or any future president’s hands.

The administration believes it has latitude under a new authorization to insert U.S. intelligence agents on the ground, conduct rescue operations (as has already occurred in Syria), and deploy U.S. forces into dangerous territory to help call in airstrikes or advise Iraqi and other allied fighters.


When CNN reporter Jim Acosta asked whether AUMF request provisions were “fuzzy,” Earnest said they were “intentionally so,” in order to give the president more authority to respond to a changing situation in the ground in the Middle east.

“We believe it’s important that there aren’t overly burdensome constraints that are placed on the commander-in-chief who needs the flexibility to be able to respond to contingencies that emerge in a chaotic military conflict,” Earnest said…

In a letter accompanying the draft, the president highlighted that the administration “would not authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operations like those our nation conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.”


First, the authority does not extend to “the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground operations.” Second, the authority will expire in three years. Presumably these are sops intended to appeal to Democrats in Congress and a few Republican isolationists who are upset about the prospect of the U.S. waging “another” war in the Middle East. But do they make any sense?

The way the first restriction is worded — what the heck is an “enduring offensive ground operation” and how does it differ from a “temporary defensive ground operation”? — will, admittedly, make it largely meaningless. But still: the intent is clear and it’s to prevent the U.S. from engaging in ground combat against ISIS even if there is no good tactical alternative to such action.

Likewise the deadline — a favorite Obama limitation on the use of military force — is not as binding as it sounds. After all, if Obama has been able to fight ISIS for more than six months based on his executive authority and with no AUMF, it stands to reason that a future president could continue such action even after the AUMF expires. But the symbolism is clear — it is meant to imply that the U.S. will end its anti-ISIS operation within three years, whether that group is defeated or not.


The President has for six months claimed that the 2001 AUMF and Article II authorize force against ISIL.  Under the administration’s ISIL-specific AUMF, this prior construction remains entirely untouched.  The White House draft does not propose to sunset the 2001 AUMF (as I and many, many others, including Representative Schiff, have proposed).  Nor does it abrogate its prior construction of the 2001 AUMF related to ISIL.  (By comparison, the draft AUMF passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December provided: “The provisions of this joint resolution pertaining to the authorization of use of force against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant shall supersede any preceding authorization for the use of military force.”)  As a legal matter, therefore, any limitations on Congress’s authorization in the draft ISIL-specific AUMF are meaningless, since the President can simply revert to reliance on the 2001 AUMF as an independent basis of authority for any actions not authorized by the ISIL-specific AUMF…

The ISIL-specific draft AUMF actually expands presidential power from the current baseline.  The reason is Section 5, which defines “associated forces.”  The administration has already stretched the 2001 AUMF quite a lot to apply to ISIL.  But the draft AUMF would go even further, and authorize force for three years against non-Al Qaeda, non-ISIL terrorists and terrorist organizations that fight “alongside ISIL,” as well as “any closely-related successor entity” to ISIL. 


“We don’t need a new AUMF to do our jobs” because the ongoing AUMF has allowed the United States to conduct its war legally, said one defense official who asked for anonymity to speak more candidly. “The AUMF is frankly more of a political issue than a military one.”

Even on Capitol Hill, there was some acknowledgement that Congress was going through the theater of authorizing the war to make a point rather than to shape military strategy.

“It’s not a complete waste of time…We have the power of war-making,” said a Senate aide who works on the issue. “It is our job to define the president’s authority in this area.”

It’s hard to imagine the process as anything but a farce. A new authorization won’t affect military operations, already long under way; indeed, three service members have already perished in ongoing operations. And politically, the debate forces lawmakers to take a stance on an uncertain war that could take a generation to unfold.


In our constitutional system, therefore, Congress is not permitted to command the armed forces. It has no more power to direct the president to deploy or not deploy ground forces than it does to tell the president to “take that hill” or capture this enemy combatant…

If Obama believes the risk of the nation’s being enmeshed in an “enduring” armed conflict (to borrow his proposed AUMF’s nonsense word) is more dangerous than the risks posed by attacking the enemy, he can refuse to fight at all. Or, as he has done in Iraq and is doing in Afghanistan, he can withdraw even as the enemy is on the rise — a command decision known, in less politically correct parlance, as surrender. But whatever command decisions the president makes, they are his decisions. He is politically accountable for them…

Obama is personally unfazed by congressional restrictions. He follows — or, in the case of his AUMF, proposes — only those that serve his purposes, and blithely disregards the rest. He realizes, however, that he will only be president for another 23 months. Obviously, he wants the next president, especially if a Republican is elected, to be hamstrung by an AUMF that bans ground forces and presumes all military action against ISIS will end by 2017. Obama knows that, unlike him, a Republican president who ran roughshod over statutes — even unconstitutional ones — would risk impeachment.

There is more here, though, than meets the eye. The president aims to establish the precedent that Congress may curtail the commander-in-chief’s use of force. Obama is not going away when he leaves office; he will very publicly assume leadership of the transnational Left. From that perch, he will urge the exploitation of that precedent by like-minded Democrats and Republicans (from both the progressive-lite and anti-government extremist camps). Before long, Congress would not content itself with mere combat restrictions. There would be efforts to rewrite the laws of war — e.g., limiting the president to the Left’s distorted notion of proportional uses of force. There would be a push to make prosecution in the civilian justice system, rather than indefinite detention and interrogation, the standard process for captured enemy terrorists.


The final defect of the ISIS AUMF, and the one that threatens to be longest-lasting, is the harm that it would inflict on the institution of the presidency. Regardless of party, presidents have gone to Congress for legislative support not because they thought it constitutionally necessary, but because they sought political unity. Presidents from FDR to George W. Bush understood the importance of maintaining “energy in the executive,” in the words of Federalist 70 — an energy that is “essential to the protection of the community from foreign attack.” The White House’s proposal presents the unprecedented spectacle of a president who is willingly giving up his office’s national-security powers, for reasons that are difficult to understand. Maybe he wants to leave the ISIS problem as a nice parting gift for a President Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush, who will have to fight for another AUMF in 2018 over the objections of a filibustering minority in the Senate. Or perhaps he has bought into the liberal canard that America and its presidents do more harm than good in the world with their military adventurism. Millions, in this nation and beyond, who have benefited from the historic peace and prosperity of the post–World War II world would disagree…

But the better course of action is to do nothing. Even without a new AUMF, the president has constitutional authority as commander-in-chief, supported by congressional funding, to wage the conflict. Even if one had the view, as Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) does, that Congress had to pre-approve all wars, the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs provide sufficient legal authority to attack ISIS and any other hostile groups in Iraq. If Congress wants to send a clearer signal of American unity and resolve, it should reverse the recent blind, automatic cuts to defense spending and bring the military’s capabilities up to the demands of America’s global responsibilities. Congress would not only save Obama from his own policies, it would also preserve the powers of the presidency for times — like this one — when the nation needs them most.


If I were a member of Congress I happily would vote down Obama’s war resolution for all of these reasons. There is no cause to assent to the president’s demand for a war authority he does not want, does not need, and probably will not use. I also cannot help thinking that the presidential request is little more than a trap, a bone thrown in the direction of the cloakroom to distract from the collapse of America’s position in the Middle East and the approaching deadline for nuclear talks with Iran. How better to provoke infighting among both Republicans and Democrats, to switch the debate from sanctions against Iran to “Rand Paul versus Marco Rubio for the soul of the GOP,” than to start a debate over presidential war powers as the war is going on.

Indeed, a congressional rebuke of Obama on the grounds that his proposal does not go far enough is more likely to make him rethink his approach than bipartisan passage or an extended period of debate and modification and attempts to “improve” his language. And even if such a rethinking does not occur, if Obama goes ahead with his strategy based on his current authorities, the Republicans would pay no price. Say that Obama is not looking to distract the Congress with his war authorization but to win congressional buy-in for his policy through the end of his presidency. How is the country made more secure, how is the American interest furthered, by Republican authorization of a flawed strategy? Would the Democrats have gone along with Bush or participated in earnest and collegial discussions with his administration if he had asked Congress to authorize his surge of troops to Iraq in 2007? You can stop laughing…

Far better for us all if the Congress refused the president precisely because he is unserious and untrustworthy with the security of the United States and the world, and spent the remaining two years of his presidency making the case publicly and robustly for the roll back of ISIS and the removal of Assad, an end to the Iranian nuclear program, a military buildup, and a renewal of the alliance system and of American support for Western principles of liberal democracy. That way the voters will be absolutely certain next year that there is a substantive and consequential choice to be made about the future of American foreign policy and security. They will see the results of Obama’s policy of retreat and appeasement throughout the world. And Hillary Clinton won’t be able to say, well, the Republican Congress supported the president, so why don’t you?