The Slatest

Congress Is Trying to Give Obama Powers to Fight ISIS That He Doesn’t Want or Need

Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama urged Congress to put its money where its mouth is on the fight against ISIS. “If this Congress is serious about winning this war, and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, authorize the use of military force against ISIL,” he said. “Take a vote.”

Congress isn’t quite there yet, but there were a few rumblings this week that they might soon be. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a move in support of a draft authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, against ISIS proposed by hawkish South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. McConnell took advantage of a rule that allows the majority party to put a bill on the Senate calendar without the normal consideration by committee, though this does not mean that a vote on the authorization is actually imminent.

The White House put forth a draft AUMF last year that fizzled and died in the Republican-held Congress. Graham’s proposal differs in that it contains no limitations on the potential to send “boots on the ground” and gives Obama and future presidents an open-ended time frame to conduct the fight. The White House draft prohibited the use of “enduring offensive ground combat operations” to fight ISIS and its authority would have ended after three years. This spat in Congress is less about how Obama is carrying out the war against ISIS than how his successor will. McConnell accurately described the GOP position this week as such: “I don’t want to tie the hands of the next president. The next president may want to actually defeat ISIL.”

The ground troops issue is a meaningful one for Graham, but largely a political one for most Republicans, who have been reluctant to actually call for the deployment of major ground forces in Iraq and Syria. In any case, the word “enduring” would give whoever is president an awful lot of latitude for the kind of special forces operations that the White House has already been authorizing.

As for the lack of a time limit, there’s no reason the authorization couldn’t be renewed if there wasn’t one. That would force Congress to hold debates every few years over where and how the president is carrying out the fight against ISIS and, if necessary, to expand or limit his or her authority going forward. Without any time constraints, there’s not much point in having an authorization at all, given that the White House is already conducting combat operations in Iraq and Syria without one. A time limit would at the very least force a political conversation about the issue, even if it didn’t necessarily tie down the next president.

Despite the debate on Capitol Hill, an anti-ISIS authorization would have little to do with the means used in that fight. As Obama himself made clear in the State of the Union, he has been perfectly willing to launch combat operations without one, as would any of his likely successors. The reasons why it’s important are to get members of Congress of both parties to sign on to the fight against ISIS, to acknowledge that the 2001 AUMF is not a carte blanche for the president to attack any enemy, anywhere, at any time, no matter how tenuous its connection to the 9/11 attacks, and to give Congress an ongoing oversight role in the operation. Graham’s bill would do two of three and abdicate on the final point.  

And without any authorization, things are getting confusing. Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the White House had, for the first time, given the Pentagon legal authority to carry out offensive operations against ISIS in Afghanistan, where its presence is growing. Previously, targets of combat operations had to be shown to have ties to al-Qaida’s remnants in the country. This seems to be skipping a step. In the absence of a new authorization, the U.S. has been carrying out operations against ISIS in Syria under the authority of the 2001 AUMF against al-Qaida; now they’ll be conducting operations against ISIS in Afghanistan under that same authority to fight al-Qaida. This relies on the argument that ISIS is a successor organization to al-Qaida, even though the two are now at war with each other. If that logic works for the fight against ISIS in Syria, it’s not quite clear why new authority would be needed in Afghanistan. It seems at times like the White House is unilaterally cobbling together a legal rationale as it goes along.