Here’s Why Obama Asked Congress to Formally Authorize War with ISIS

Syria/Kobani

Source: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Why Does Obama Need an AUMF Now?

For the first time in his presidency, and six months after airstrikes were first launched against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, President Barack Obama asked Congress to authorize U.S. military action. The approval will last a period of three years, well after he leaves office, and repeal the 2002 AUMF under which George W. Bush invaded Iraq. Remaining in place will be the 2001 authorization that allowed the Bush administration to pursue al-Qaeda after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Both those documents have been used by the Obama administration as legal justification for its airstrikes in Syria and Iraq and the deployment of advisers to the region.

“I have directed a comprehensive and sustained strategy to degrade and defeat ISIL. As part of this strategy, U.S. military forces are conducting a systematic campaign of airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria,” stated Obama in a letter issued to Congress on Wednesday. “Although existing statutes provide me with the authority I need to take these actions, I have repeatedly expressed my commitment to working with the Congress to pass a bipartisan authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIL.” The three-page AUMF draft that Obama submitted to Congress manages to both expand the scope of the conflict and to “further restrict the authority of the U.S. military to confront this threat,” as House Majority Leader, Republican Kevin McCarthy noted in his response.

Obama’s request does not include any geographical limitations, so as to be prepared for any further expansions by ISIS. Its leaders have been explicit about the Islamic State’s intentions of creating a 7th-century style caliphate spanning the Muslim world that would dismember the nation-state system imposed on the Middle East after World War I. And despite months of airstrikes by the United States-led coalition, ISIS remains in control of a broad swath of territory in Iraq and Syria. It has “stated its intention to seize more territory and demonstrated the capability to do so,” reads the text of the AUMF. ISIS “has threatened genocide and committed vicious acts of violence against religious and ethnic minority groups,” committed horrific acts of violence, and expressed a desire “to conduct terrorist attacks internationally.”

From this document, it is clear the Obama administration sees a need to take a firmer stand against ISIS. “If left unchecked, ISIL will pose a threat beyond the Middle East, including to the United States homeland,” Obama wrote in his letter to Congress. And much pressure has been put on the president to develop a more coherent strategy. But the White House did insist upon length limitations, including language that prohibited the “enduring” deployment of U.S. ground forces. However, importantly, the AUMF does not specifically ban the limited use of boots on the ground, as a government official told the Washington Post. In a late afternoon press conference, Obama did stress the fact that the authorization for another ground war in the Middle East like those recently concluded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama concluded his remarks by reaffirming his belief that the United States does not benefit from remaining in a state of endless war.

This AUMF proposal gives lawmakers the chance to finally debate the terms on which the United States should fight ISIS. It has been more than two years since Obama first expressed his intention to ask for a new congressional authorization to combat international extremist threats. And even though the relatively broad parameters Obama suggested were designed to draw bipartisan support, Republicans are expected to extensively examine the president’s proposal.

“The Speaker [John Boehner] and I told the President we’d consider his request.  I am prepared to support an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that provides new legal authorities to go after ISIL and other terrorist groups,” stated McCarthy. “However, I will not support efforts that impose undue restrictions on the U.S. military and make it harder to win.”

How do Americans feel about terrorism?

The twin terrorist attacks in Paris in early January, which caused the death of 12 staff members of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, a policeman, and the four Jewish hostages held in the kosher supermarket, did not make the American public any more concerned than they were previously about the threat of domestic terrorism. This seeming lack of worry is not because the United States failed to follow the story closely; while past international terrorist attacks have drawn more attention, the January 7 Charlie Hebdo shooting was still the most followed news event of that week. Rather, Pew Research found that since September, when Obama announced his strategy for degrading the brutal and extremist Islamic militant group known as ISIL, ISIS, or simply the Islamic State, the American public has become much more confident in the counterterrorism capabilities of the Obama administration. Despite the growing threat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq throughout 2014, 85% of Democrats and 63% of Republicans say Obama’s government is “doing very or fairly well at reducing the terror threat,” a 14-point and 23-point increase from September, respectively. By comparison, in early September, amid the high-visibility beheadings by ISIL, the American public was much more skeptical of the government’s ability to deal with terrorism threats.

When asked to quantify their concerns, 49% said they worry Obama’s anti-terrorism policies have not gone far enough to adequately protect the country, while a slightly smaller share, 37%, said their bigger fear is that his counterterrorism strategy has gone too far in restricting the average citizen’s civil liberties. Since June 2013, when former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the U.S. government’s surveillance program, the share of Americans who worry the federal government uses terrorism as an excuse to curtail civil liberties has declined by 10 percentage points. Among Republican respondents, that shift was even more pronounced than among Democrats, Independents, or the broader group. Republicans also expressed much more concern than Democrats about the possibility of another domestic terrorist attack, with conservative Republicans about as twice as likely as liberal Democrats to report fear. Likely, the Republican party’s perception of Obama as an incompetent leader in the area of foreign affairs helped create that divide.

Still, as more Americans benefit from the accelerating economic recovery, terrorism has eclipsed the economy as the country’s biggest concern, according to a Pew Research survey. Opinion polls also suggest that the American public has become open to the idea the United States needs to continue operations against the the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and should even escalate the conflict if necessary. In late October, a CNN/ORC International survey showed that during the one month period immediately following Obama’s announcement of the White House’s plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL,” the share of Americans who favored the military airstrikes increased modestly from 73% to 76%. Strong numbers, 66%, still thought Obama did not a have clear plan; nearly half of those polled believed that operations were not progressing well, and fewer respondents were very or somewhat confident that U.S. would be able to destroy the military ability of ISIL.

Yet, despite that seeming negativity or caution, the share of Americans who favored sending ground troops to combat Islamic State forces rose from 38% to 45% in that same period. “Public attitudes on ISIL are complex with evidence of genuine public concern. But Americans remain reluctant, even hypothetically, to plunge deeper into the fight in part because of a sense that ISIL cannot be completely destroyed. However, significant divisions across party lines, and obvious public ambivalence, may become factors in the upcoming presidential campaigns,” wrote Politico’s Shibley Telhami earlier this month, describing the change in public opinion.

“We have seen American public opinion dramatically grow as they begin to appreciate the nature of this threat,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on CBS program Face the Nation. It is the president that does appreciate the nature of the threat, according to the Senator.

Does Obama still not have a strategy to fight ISIL?

Most Obama’s political opponents unsurprisingly articulated a similar lack of confidence in the his administration’s abilities to degrade and destroy ISIL. His presidency has overlapped the most partisan period in American politics, and of course, opposition to Obama’s ISIL strategy stems in no small part from the political expediency criticism brings to lawmakers. However, the complexity of both America’s foreign policy needs and concerns in the Middle East makes for a plurality of possible options and strategies. Republicans, and possible 2016 Democratic nominees for president, have particularly criticized Obama’s overall foreign policy maxim and his approach to fighting ISIL.

“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” noted former Secretary of State (and possibly the Democrat’s 2016 presidential nominee) Hillary Clinton in an August interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Her description of President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine may be a generalization, but it is not far off the mark. During a tour of Asia last year, Obama explained that his administration focuses on not rushing to judgement when presented with crises. Critics who argue the United States is not using enough force “haven’t learned the lesson of the last decade,” during which the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took a toll on U.S. forces and its budget, he stated. “That may not always be sexy,” Obama said of his administration’s focus on engagement and unity among allies. “That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors.”

Withholding judgement in order to avoid making errors costly in American lives and treasury is sound reasoning; and for the large share of Americans who judge the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq to have been misguided, based in the Bush administrations overzealousness to spread democracy or to ensure the safety of the Americans, that reasoning was welcomed. That reasoning is not were his critics get their ammunition. Rather, the president has been faulted for using caution as a cover for indecision or an inability to make tough decisions on the international stage. That the threat ISIL metastasized quickly, leaving the jihadist militant group Obama once termed “junior varsity” terrorist in control great swaths land in Iraq and Syria, suggests to the president’s critics that his guiding principle helped to underestimate the threat of the group. Republicans continue to argue Obama’s response to ISIL is misguided because of that reasoning.

McCain began his appearance on the Face the Nation by asserting the president and his White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough had “lost touch with reality.” His proof: “Iran is on the march throughout. In Yemen, it’s not AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] that has taken over the government. It’s the Houthis, who, guess what, are backed and supported by the Iranians. The Iranians are now either dominant or extremely influential in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen. They’re on the move in Bahrain. And they are winning.” And in McCain’s opinion the Obama administration has not articulated a “strategy, except that we will fight against these people.” He pointed, in particular, to the city of Kobani, a strategic garrison built along the Syrian-Turkish border that has been besieged by ISIL fighters since late September.

A report dated January 26 from the U.S. Central Command announced that “anti-ISIL forces now control approximately 90 percent of the city,” and United States officials “are celebrating a modest victory in the war against the Islamic State in Syria,” noted the Washington Post. Images of the city show its Kurdish defenders hoisting their yellow flag to replace the Islamic State’s black-and-white banner. It may be a modest victory, but the loss of Kobani marks the first major defeat for the Islamic State in Syria. This victory — which came at the hands of Kurdish fighters who fought room to room as the Western coalition bombed daily from the sky — could be seen as proof the United states and its allies can stop the expansion of the Islamic State. If it holds, the defeat deprives ISIL fighters of an important border crossing, and a major humanitarian crises will be eased.

However, he defense of the city took 75% of the 954 airstrikes conducted by allied warplanes in Syria since September. That such a large percentage of coalition resources were devoted to just Kobani suggests the U.S. strategy in Syria never developed beyond preventing the fall of a single border city. McCain made that same argument. “So there is no strategy,” he told “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer. “It is delusional for them to think that what they’re doing is succeeding. And we need more boots on the ground. I know that is a tough thing to say and a tough thing for Americans to swallow, but it doesn’t mean the 82nd Airborne. It means forward air controllers. It means special forces. It means intelligence and it means other capabilities.”

Speaker of the House John Boehner made a similar complaint after Obama announced his strategy in early September. A “F-16 is not a strategy … air strikes alone will not accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish. And the President has made clear that he doesn’t want U.S. boots on the ground. Well somebody’s boots have to be on the ground. … I would never tell the enemy what I was willing or unwilling to do,” he told reporters. On September 9, Boehner argued that Obama needs to actually detail a strategy that “goes after ISIS and destroys them. I think we need to go after the terrorist threat wherever it is.”

But isn’t victory in Kobani good news for 2015?

Despite the victory in Kobani, analysts expect the war on ISIL will be difficult this year. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, who has described the Islamic State as having an “apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision,” noted in a press conference last year that the United States was facing a “persistent and sustained campaign” that could last as long as four years. At the very least, victory will not come this year despite the United States military’s aggressive air campaign. In an effort to map the militant group’s 2015 trajectory, CNN highlighted the strengths of the Islamic State. Not only are its leaders willing to push their conception of an Islamic caliphate into existence through brutal violence, but ISIL is capable of holding ground — much more than al Qaeda ever was. In both Iraq and Syria, the group has changed tactics to make itself less vulnerable to airstrikes. And terrorism is a popular tool. U.S. troops, which now number 3,000, are expected to be more in harm’s way this year, as they will no longer be confined to the relatively safe region of Kurdistan and the capital of Baghdad. Now, 300 troops are stationed at al-Asad air base in Iraq’s hotly contested Anbar province, but more will soon arrive.

When the Pentagon deployed the first wave of soldiers back in November it marked the first time troops from the United States have returned to Anbar since they left Iraq in 2011. Anbar — the largest province in Iraq, bordering Syria and Saudi Arabia — was the home a strong anti-American insurgency and saw some of the hardest fighting of the war. Over the course of this year, many more troops will be sent to so-called “forward-deployed” training centers. After all, U.S. troops are in Iraq to train the country’s army, and it is still unclear whether Iraqi troops have the ability to retake key positions, like the city of Mosel. In Syria, the situation is even more precarious; the coalition has not yet concluded its vetting of moderate rebels, ISIL is again changing tactics to make itself less vulnerable, and new fronts — including one near Lebanon — have been opened.

For 2015, the key question will be whether U.S. commanders ask the Pentagon for more forward deployment of American troops, which will place troops in close proximity to conflict.

At almost every possible opportunity, Obama has said that U.S. combat forces will not be put on the ground in the Middle East. With particular detail, he explained to Chuck Todd in an early September interview for NBC’s Meet the Press that the United States cannot serially occupy various countries all around the Middle East. “We don’t have the resources. It puts enormous strains on our military. And at some point, we leave. And then things blow up again.” Obama, who made it his expressed mission to end American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has contended that “this is not the equivalent of the Iraq war.” And while “this is is similar to the kinds of counterterrorism campaigns that we’ve been engaging in consistently over the last five, six, seven years. … We’re not looking at sending in 100,000 American troops.”

Yet, when pressed by lawmakers in an August Senate hearing, Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and top Pentagon official, indicated that he would support sending U.S. advisers to accompany Iraqi troops into battle against militants if airstrikes fail. He also acknowledged that the current level of military engagement in Iraq already constitutes a direct combat mission. “Are pilots dropping bombs in Iraq a direct combat mission and will U.S. forces be prepared to provide search and rescue mission if pilots get shot down and be prepared to put boots on the ground to make that mission be successful?” asked Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Yes and yes,” Dempsey answered.

It is not that Obama has minimized the threat. “ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria and the broader Middle East, including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies,” noted the president in a public address on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Still, his political opponents act as if has, and how Obama handles terrorism and the Middle East will be important in debate leading up to 2016’s presidential elections.

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