It is not clear that Congress intends to take up the question of a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against the Islamic State, although the president has requested that they do so.  Some members, especially Democrats, are worried that the draft AUMF sent by the president would constitute a blank check for war extending far beyond the current operations in Iraq and Syria.  But adopting a new AUMF for the war against IS won’t be a blank check for war; doing nothing, failing to vote on a new AUMF, will be the blank check. 

Since beginning the military campaign against IS last summer, the administration has claimed that the AUMF adopted after the attacks of 9/11 to authorize war against al Qaeda and the Taliban somehow authorizes this new war fourteen years later against a new enemy in different countries.  If Congress fails to debate and vote on a new IS- only AUMF, its inaction is likely to be read as endorsement of the administration’s claim that it can properly rely on the 2001 AUMF.  Endorsement of that claim, reading the 2001 AUMF to apply to this new war, risks providing the president with much more of a blank check than would enactment of the president’s proposed draft IS AUMF.   The only way for Congress to reclaim its authority and prevent blank check claims by a president is to debate and vote – for the first time since 2002 – on the use of military force.    

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Of course, Congress should carefully consider the wording of a new IS-only AUMF.  But it must not let the usual compromises and ambiguities of legislating serve as an excuse for avoiding a difficult decision.  When they assumed their office, Members took on the responsibility of putting themselves on record by voting to support or oppose a military campaign, even when the course of a war is uncertain.  They now owe a vote to the American public, and to members of the Armed Services, who agree to risk their lives and to take the lives of others even when the course of a war is uncertain.     

The choice facing the majority of members who say they support the military campaign against IS, is to enact a new AUMF for this war or to endorse continued reliance on the 2001 AUMF as authority for new wars.  The handful of members who are opposed to the war against IS are of course opposed to a new AUMF.  But many members who say they support the war apparently are reluctant to record their support through a vote.  Such dodging of responsibility would be reprehensible in any war; it is particularly so here, where the effect of doing so will be precisely the opposite of what members claim they want – to cabin presidential war-making power. 

Claiming authority under the 2001 AUMF, presidents have deployed military force in Afghanistan and Pakistan, against the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, and against members of al Shabaab in Somalia.   Congress, as an institution has not objected to the executive’s  claim of authority pursuant to the 2001 AUMF in any of these circumstances.  It has not for example, required a new vote or authorization for the use of military force in Yemen.  To the contrary, by failing to act for so many years in the face of executive claims, Congress acquiesced in the executive’s reading of the 2001 AUMF. 

Whatever the merits of those readings of the 2001 AUMF, to now extend that AUMF to the war against IS would be categorically different.  The U.S. is now engaged in a new war against a new enemy in different countries, an enemy that is in competition and sometimes actual conflict with al Qaeda.  If the 2001 AUMF is deemed to authorize this war, it is hard to imagine any circumstances where it could not be argued to apply.    

While some members have expressed concern about a new IS- only AUMF expanding presidential power, just the opposite is true.    A new IS-only AUMF would put Congress squarely on record that a president must obtain a new AUMF for a new war, not claim reliance forever on the 2001 AUMF intended against other enemies.  (The claim by some that a new IS- only AUMF won’t be effective to replace the 2001 AUMF as to the war against IS is simply a red herring.  Secretary Kerry has stated that the administration will treat it as such and Congress can easily make clear that it is doing so.)  Moreover, the president’s draft IS AUMF, unlike the 2001 AUMF, contains explicit limits in its text on the use of force. 

Nevertheless, there is concern that the draft AUMF would authorize war in places other than Iraq and Syria and against other groups than IS.  This legitimate concern, however, can only be addressed by passing a new AUMF.  To do nothing is to accept the administration’s claim that the 2001 AUMF already provides congressional authority for war in other places and against other groups.   On the other hand, a new IS-only AUMF would create the critical precedent of requiring a new AUMF for new wars in the future rather than simply relying on the 2001 AUMF.  Those who do not believe it wise or necessary to vote now on some future possible war against some other group would best preserve congressional prerogatives by voting now on a new AUMF for this new war – and by doing so reject the claim that it has already authorized the war against IS. 

If Congress simply punts on the requested AUMF, both this and the next president can simply continue to claim reliance on the 2001 AUMF, leaving Congress on the sidelines.  So the question facing Congress now is whether it will authorize a new more specific IS- only AUMF.  By not acting, by not adopting a new AUMF for this new war, Congress would be doing precisely what it says it wants to avoid; giving a blank check to a president to attack other groups in additional countries potentially with large-scale ground troops, and to claim congressional authorization for such actions by virtue of the 2001 AUMF.  Congress would not only cede to the executive the power to decide on this war, but will have agreed that its action in 2001 was effective to authorize this new war and future subsequent wars.        

Martin is director of the Center for National Security Studies.