Civil war: Democrats spoiling for fight with Obama over ISIS war authorization

More than six months after President Barack Obama ordered the first combat operations against Islamic State forces in Iraq, the White House is finally preparing to send language to Congress that, if passed, would legally authorize the new campaign. Reports indicate that new AUMF language could be sent to Congress as soon as Wednesday.

According to the Associated Press, however, lawmakers of both parties are not eager to pass a new authorization for the use of military force that can be construed as open-ended. Democrats and Republicans are keen to avoid passing a new resolution similar to that passed in 2001 which even the Obama administration has claimed provides them with the legal authority to execute strikes against ISIS anywhere in the world. Democrats in particular hope to craft a narrower AUMF than those passed in the early part of the last decade in order to constrain not merely Obama but his successor who will likely inherit the war against ISIS.

“No. 2 House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said some lawmakers want to set geographic limits or restrict the types of forces that can be used,” the Associated Press reported. “‘Members don’t want open-ended’ authority for the president to use force, he said. ‘They want some time limit so we can reconsider at some point in time, whether its 24 months, 36 months, 48 months.’”

A congressional aide said Democrats will not rubber-stamp the White House version, but will seek to rewrite it to include bipartisan views. Another congressional staffer said the debate in Congress will not necessarily flow along party lines because, for instance, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats alike have disagreed about two major sticking points: deploying U.S. combat troops and restricting the geographical area served by the new authorization. The second staffer said a final authorization will depend on the language decided on regarding these two issues.

According to AP’s reporting, the White House will consent to a sunset provision in this latest AUMF that would force Obama’s successor to seek reauthorization. The new AUMF will not include any geographic limitations on the theater of anti-ISIS operations, but it will limit the fight to ISIS, its affiliates, and any subsequent groups that might arise from that organization. That’s far closer to what Democrats want to pass than what hawks like Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-AZ) would prefer.

In fact, they and other interventionist Republicans want to ensure that the White House does not rule out the deployment of U.S. ground forces to engage in direct combat with ISIS. According to Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin, the administration seeks to prohibit the use of American troops for “enduring offensive ground operations” with some exceptions.

First, all existing ground troops, including the 3,000 U.S. military personnel now on the ground in Iraq, would be explicitly excluded from the restrictions. After that, the president would be allowed to deploy new military personnel in several specific roles: advisers, special operations forces, Joint Terminal Attack Controllers to assist U.S. air strikes, and Combat Search and Rescue personnel.

Under the president’s proposal, the 2002 AUMF that was passed to authorize the Iraq war would be repealed, but the 2001 AUMF that allows the U.S. to fight against al-Qaeda and its associated groups would remain in place.

The new statute would authorize military action against Islamic State and its associated forces, which are defined in the text as organizations fighting alongside the jihadists and engaged in active hostilities. This means the president would be free to attack groups such as the al-Nusra Front or Iraqi Baathist elements who have partnered with the Islamic terrorists in Syria or Iraq. There are no geographic limitations, so the administration would be free to expand the war to other countries.

Rogin observed that the language the White House will submit to Congress is designed to receive bipartisan support and is written so as to closely mirror a use of force authorization introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) when he served as that committee’s chairman. One unnamed Republican aide apparently told Rogin, though, that Republicans might “walk” if the president signals with his proposed AUMF a desire slow-walk the war and to bequeath the fight against ISIS to his successor.

For all the Democrats’ talk of wanting to limit Obama’s freedom of action to prosecute the war against ISIS, it looks as though the president would welcome having his hands tied a bit. It seems like the natural order will soon reassert itself, and it will be Republicans who end up in a fight with the president as they seek to ensure that he performs his duties as commander-in-chief faithfully.