Obama's exquisite political predicament in Iraq

The times, they are a’changing. With American air assets executing strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq, it seems like only yesterday that the administration was taking credit for ending the Iraq War and trying to erase any memory of that painful period. That is probably because it essentially was only yesterday.

For example, the administration has regularly insisted that it supports the repeal of the 2002 congressional resolution which authorized the use of force in Iraq. As recently as July 25, the White House insisted that Congress should repeal that resolution which provided the president with the legal authority to execute military strikes inside Iraq.

“We believe a more appropriate and timely action for Congress to take is the repeal of the outdated 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq,” read a July 25 letter sent to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) from White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

The pursuit of the repeal of the AUMF in Iraq was an exercise in service to a political goal, of course, and not a strategic one. That AUMF, which remains in place now, is providing this administration with the legal authority to not only execute strikes inside Iraq in defense of American assets and personnel, but to possibly carry out strikes on ISIS targets which do not immediately threaten American interests.

Of course, the Obama administration cannot say that. On Thursday night, immediately following President Obama’s address in which he revealed he was authorizing airstrikes in Iraq, reporters probed an administration SAO about what legal authority the White House believes justifies these operations. The responses were somewhat contradictory.

The official told reporters that the President of the United States enjoys the authority under the Constitution to execute strikes in Iraq. At another point, when asked if counterinsurgency operations inside Syria were on the table, the official said that American military authorization was restricted only to Iraq.

Of course, there is irony here for Congress as well. Those primarily Republican members of the House who supported contingency operations inside and over Syria in 2013 backed unilateral action by the president. They and the president knew that, if authorizing force in Syria came to a vote in either chamber of Congress, it would likely fail.

In spite of the fact that the administration lobbied heavily in favor of a resolution to use force, which did pass a Senate committee, the resolution was shelved when it appeared unlikely to pass in the Senate. Obama, for his part, had already essentially consented to allowing a Russian-brokered deal suffice as a resolution to the crisis in Syria.

Would a new authorization to use force in Iraq against ISIS militants meet the same fate? It’s possible, but Congress is certainly thrilled that they do not have to cast a contentious vote to reauthorize military action in Iraq. Obama, too, is surely grateful that he has the 2002 AUMF should he be required to justify future strikes against ISIS targets. It is, however, the height of absurdity that this resolution – opposition to which almost singlehandedly elevated Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries – is now making life easier for a lot of elected officials.

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