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A new war

Last week, President Obama said he plans to ask Congress for its authorization to continue the U.S. war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Although Obama had in the past said he already had all the authorization he needs to bomb ISIS, going to Congress is the right move—because this is a new war, and at this point no one knows where it’s going or what it will take for the U.S. to succeed.  Congress should debate the threat from ISIS and the appropriate U.S. response.

The president’s earlier claim that the war against ISIS was an extension of the earlier wars in Afghanistan and Iraq never made sense. The 2001 AUMF authorized the United States to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda following the September 11 terrorist attacks.  The 2002 AUMF against Iraq was intended to depose Saddam Hussein, supposedly for the threat he posed with weapons of mass destruction, which never materialized.  Obama officially ended the war in Iraq in December 2011, when he withdrew the last of the U.S. troops there.  And he’s signaled an intent to end the U.S. role in the war in Afghanistan by the end of this year by scheduling withdrawal of remaining combat troops. The war against ISIS, which formally split from al Qaeda in 2013, can’t plausibly be folded in that 2001 authorization. That’s obviously not what Congress intended.

{mosads}Over the summer, Obama decided the United States should bomb ISIS in Iraq, and then in Syria, in order to “degrade, and ultimately destroy, [ISIS] through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” That’s not about defending the U.S. homeland from another al Qaeda terrorist attack—the purpose of the Afghanistan war—and it’s not about preventing the use of WMDs.  It’s a new war with a new goal: to prevent ISIS from taking over larger swaths of Iraq and Syria.  Congress and the American people should be consulted on exactly what part we want our country to play in that.

This was among the topics to be discussed by Obama and congressional leaders during their first post-election in their meeting at the White House last Friday. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has also said he’d hold hearings on the U.S. role in Iraq and Syria  beginning next week. These are steps in the right direction.  

If congressional leaders decide they do want to authorize the president to use force against ISIS, they should, as this group of prominent U.S. legal experts explains, make sure it’s narrowly-defined to address the specific threat posed by ISIS, not an open-ended authorization to conduct a “war on terror.” 

No one likes it, but terrorism in some form will continue to exist around the world, for all the usual reasons: repressive governments, lack of opportunities and political exploitation of historic enmities, among others. The United States should debate and respond to the threats posed by terrorist groups in a specific and deliberate manner, and not with overbroad general authorizations of force, which threatens to escalate the problem and alienate our partner countries, as we’ve seen over the last 12 years. 

The new threat of the Islamic State ISIS is an opportunity for the United States to re-think its counterterrorism strategy to adopt a wiser, more measured response going forward.  Any new authorization to use military force should therefore define carefully and explicitly the scope of military operations and their objectives; ensure the public is provided with full information about the conduct of the war, including its location, costs, targets and purpose; that Congress provides meaningful oversight; that the U.S. complies with international law; and that the 2001 AUMF soon comes to an end.

Unfortunately, the 2001 AUMF against al-Qaida and the Taliban was stretched and contorted over the past decade to cover a different set of threats, with insufficient Congressional oversight and regard to the costs of using force to respond to these threats.  The president and Congress should learn from that, and ensure any new military force authorization is narrowly tailored to meet the actual threat from ISIS to the United States.  New legislation should also set a date for sunset of the 2001 AUMF, which would allow Congress and the American people to look again at the state of the threat from al-Qaida. 

Eviatar is Human Rights First’s senior counsel for national security.

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