At least Congress is finally having the debate — the debate over proper authorization for the military offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It took about six months to get the debate going, but it is finally happening, though simply having it is not enough. Contentions over the president's draft language for authorization for use of military force (AUMF) present distinct policy questions, constitutional questions and questions regarding the future of global conflict.
Before committees began holding hearings on the president's AUMF, members of Congress voiced their displeasure. For Republicans, it restrains the current president's (and future presidents') hand by limiting military operations to three years. For Democrats, the draft AUMF is too broad and could allow presidents to target groups all over the world far beyond the region of Iraq and Syria.
The constitutional crisis these points of contention reveal is the possibility that Congress will not overcome political impasses to even pass an AUMF, a further dereliction of constitutional duties of war-making, which will cede more power to the executive (though the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed an authorization at the end of the 113th Congress, along mostly partisan lines). Military operations will continue regardless if Congress passes an AUMF or not. As Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryTo address China's coal emissions, the US could use a little help from its friends Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Storms a growing danger for East Coast Israel, Jordan, UAE sign pivotal deal to swap solar energy, desalinated water MORE has asserted in committee hearings, the administration has the authority to wage their offensive based on past AUMFs. So what is the incentive for Congress? Kerry and President Obama have stated that the operations would send a more powerful message if the president and Congress are in sync.
The rhetoric coming from Washington differs greatly and members of the U.S. government do not seem to be on the same page. Do they want to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS as the president has stated, or do they simply want to provide partners in the region with the tools to degrade the group? It is not clear how goals will be achieved. The confusion was best demonstrated during a series of congressional hearings recently, in which Obama administration officials seemed to, at times, offer differing views and analysis. Further confounding the issue, the president's AUMF does not address the Bashar Assad regime's forces. Targeting a sovereign's forces (despite the fact that Obama disputes Syrian President Bashar Assad's legitimacy), while being another issue entirely, is crucial to the overall policy.
The overall debate is important regarding the future of conflicts and threats facing the United States and how it will deal with them. In recent years, the U.S. has faced more atypical enemies who hide in plain sight and do not necessarily abide by international rules. World Wars I and II were clear cut: nation states fighting nation states. Since World War II, conflicts have become much more ambivalent. U.S. forces struggled to combat guerrilla units in Vietnam and more recently, non-state actors have proven very challenging as they do not operate under the banner of a sovereign nation under international rules.
Experts agree that the shrinking U.S. force is detrimental for future security and stability. Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes one of the biggest lessons from a decade of war is that technological advances such as drones are not substitutes for ground troops and advisers, who are necessary for holding ground and training indigenous forces. Similarly, Navy Capt. Robert Newson, who formerly commanded the Special Operations Command Forward in Yemen and was tasked with a top role in Obama's counterterror strategy in Yemen (once held by the president as a successful model for how his anti-ISIS strategy would look like) gave an interview to West Point's Combating Terrorism Center in which he was critical of the counterterrorism strategy. Namely, he was critical of the overreliance on drones and raids because "you need to partner with the locals to get after their own problems. So I am an advocate of small, tailored advise and assist efforts," Newson stated. Technological remedies lauded as a panacea, such as the F-35, are not necessary to fight the enemies the U.S. faces and risk "pricing ourselves out of small wars," as Newson says.
The world is becoming more volatile and non-state actors will jump at the chance to strike the homeland, if possible. Article II of the Constitution provides broad powers for unilateral presidential action for self-defense. But Article II does not always provide enough latitude. ISIS is continuing to grow and is accepting new governorates or provinces worldwide. The president has maintained he does not want to employ a "whack-a-mole" strategy against every group that crops up, but his AUMF provides that ability.
Congress has skin in the game from a constitutional perspective. Members must act to maintain their constitutional integrity and put political differences aside or else calls bemoaning burgeoning executive authority will fall on deaf ears. Furthermore, if an effective counterterrorism policy should employ more ground forces, Congress deserves a role in defining their scope. There are currently two proposals before the House that were introduced prior to the president's AUMF and include subtle, yet distinct differences that Congress can also choose to examine.
Additional considerations should also focus on detention authority. The 2001 AUMF is considered one of the main pillars for continued detention for those held at Guantánamo Bay. More recently, the U.S. has turned to detaining enemies aboard naval vessels. If more advisers are going to be embedded with indigenous forces, what will be their detention and interrogation orders? Currently, in the scope of operations in Iraq against ISIS, detention and interrogation authority is not clear, though some reports indicate that the U.S. is not playing a role in interrogation at all, which vitally cripples intelligence capabilities.
The U.S. faces several complex threats from non-state actors such as ISIS and al Qaeda as well as state actors such as Russia, whose recent aggression in Ukraine and global assertiveness has concerned top officials. War powers have increasingly changed in the last century, further blurring already fuzzy constitutional lines. The executive and legislative branches must work in concert to ensure threats are properly defined and the necessary authority is invoked to appropriately address threats without constraining efforts or expanding war power vis-a-vis a perpetual state of war.
Pomerleau is a freelance journalist based in Washington covering politics and policy. Follow him @MpoM24.