More than six months since the U.S. began airstrikes against ISIS, Congress may finally vote on it in the next few weeks. The White House is reportedly planning to formally ask Congress today to authorize the use of military force against the group.
There’s been a long and awkward dance on this issue. The White House has maintained since the beginning of the operation, including in Obama’s recent State of the Union address, that it wants a formal authorization from Congress, but hasn’t actually presented one for approval. Several members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, have crafted their own authorizations, but Congressional leaders repeatedly punted on the issue until the new Republican-controlled Senate was seated. In the meantime, the war has been in a state of legal limbo with the administration making the dubious case that its airstrikes are kosher because of the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against al-Qaida passed in the aftermath of 9/11. (ISIS didn’t even exist at the time and is enemies with al-Qaida.)
So now Congress will finally vote on a more legitimate authorization, but first there are some thorny issues to work out. It’s not yet clear whether the new AUMF will place restrictions on deploying “boots on the ground” to fight ISIS. Some of the proposed authorizations from congressional Democrats would prohibit the use of ground troops, but while the administration maintains there are no plans for a new ground war, it also doesn’t want its hands preemptively tied.
There’s also the question of how the authorization will handle Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While the administration still says that it’s backing the “moderate” Syrian opposition and it wants the mass-murdering president gone, it also seems to be moving close to an unspoken alliance with him against ISIS. Assad told the BBC this week that he receives advance information on U.S. airstrikes from third parties. Members of Congress who’ve staunchly backed the Syrian opposition from the beginning—notably John McCain—may push for some assurances that the U.S. military won’t be acting as Assad’s air force.
There’s also the question of geographic scope. This week, a former Taliban commander who had pledged allegiance to ISIS was killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan, the first known U.S. operation against the Islamic State in that country. One of the criticisms leveled against the original AUMF was that it has been read to permit the use of force against any group affiliating itself with al-Qaida in any country, no matter how tenuous their link to the original planners of 9/11. If more groups around the world pledge allegiance to ISIS’s “caliphate,” the new authorization could turn out to be similarly open-ended. The White House may argue it needs this flexibility, but critics on the liberal left and libertarian right are worried about overreach.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said that the new authorization will only last for three years, meaning that if we’re still in the ISIS-fighting business in 2018, the next president will have to renew it. But that limit may not matter much since the White House’s current legal rationale for its anti-terrorist operations will probably remain in place: Reuters cites congressional aides claiming that the president is only seeking to repeal the 2003 authorization for the war in Iraq, not the much broader 2001 anti-terrorist authorization, which was sunsetted in some of the proposals. If that’s true, it would be an abandonment of the argument the president made in a 2013 speech at the National Defense University when he said that the 2001 authorization, which has provided the legal basis for most of America’s operations against terrorism around the world over the past 13 years, ought to be replaced since “this war, like all wars, must end.” Whatever Congress elects to do about ISIS specifically over the next few weeks, it appears Obama now intends to leave office with the “forever war” still ongoing.