Explaining the Many Different Ways Congress Is Iffy About the ISIS AUMF

Secretary of State John Kerry stops a senator from bringing up Roland Barthes for the 20th time during the AUMF hearing. Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images

On Wednesday, a day when Iraqi troops took on the Islamic State in Tikrit and a new propaganda video showing a young boy killing an Israeli man was released, Congress listened to Obama administration officials explain the draft authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIS. If passed, the AUMF will basically be a thumbs-up from Congress for things that the military has already been doing in the Middle East.

Many of the questions and concerns mentioned when the AUMF was first sent out by the White House in early February remain, and a few more issues resulting from new foreign-policy fights between the two branches have appeared too. Here’s a quick guide to who’s thinking what.

Republicans who want to give the president even more power to fight ISIS.
Led by Senator John McCain, chair of the Armed Services Committee, and his 2016 dream candidate Senator Lindsey Graham, this group thinks that the draft AUMF should give Obama more power when it comes to fighting ISIS. These two might not agree with the president on any domestic policies, but they tend to give the executive branch more leeway when it comes to conducting war. And, they still get to disagree with Obama, since he hasn’t taken them up on their offer.

In my view,” McCain said to reporter Dave Weigel in February, “it should not constrain the president of the United States, and it should not be specific to ISIS. He was elected by the American people. The Constitution of the United States says that he is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. We cannot set the precedent of constraining the president of the United States.”

These Republicans worry that the AUMF currently being debated will cause the fight against ISIS to flounder.

President Obama, who is able to make hard decisions such as this one partly because of his opposition to an especially broad AUMF, made sure to present a draft authorization that sunsets after three years and requires the White House to update Congress on progress every six months. However, his administration has also said that if an AUMF doesn’t pass, the military will continue to do what it has been doing in the Middle East, relying on the 2001 resolution allowing the U.S. to use force against groups affiliated with the September 11 attacks. 

Democrats who want the Obama administration to define what “enduring” means. Oh, and Rand Paul too.
This group, which could also be known as “the English majors,” includes many Democratic lawmakers. After more than a decade of closely reading the post-9/11 AUMFs, these legislators seem determined to understand every last syllable of the latest draft resolution. Immediately after the White House released the draft, they found the one word that was going to make them reticent to support it: “enduring.” 

The resolution reads, “The authority granted in subsection (a) does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.” At first glance, this looks like exactly what war-fatigued Democrats might want — confirmation that ground troops will not become a feature of a never-ending war against ISIS. But what does enduring mean in that context? Does something enduring last a week, a month, a year, or decades? Representative Adam Schiff told Time magazine, “It’s another way of saying this won’t be Iraq Part II or Afghanistan all over again,” he says. “Beyond that, it doesn’t tell us very much because what does ‘enduring’ mean? And what does ‘offensive’ mean?” 

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told CNN last month that the AUMF was intentionally fuzzy to make sure “there aren’t overly burdensome constraints” when responding to the conflict. Lawmakers and Obama administration officials did not agree on a definition of “enduring” during today’s hearing, according to Defense News.

At one point, Defense Secretary Ash Carter fielded a question on the definition from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and began with a long, deep, “Uhh …”

Audience members in the packed hearing room chuckled.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian who tends to split with his party on most foreign-policy issues, joined the English majors during today’s hearing, saying“I trust the military when the military says this isn’t what we’re contemplating. I trust the military. The thing is there may be another president whom I may or may not trust. I have to deal with words that 15 years from now I have to explain to my kids and their friends and their kids that something I voted for in 2015 still has us at war in 2030 in 30 different countries.”

Although no definitive boundaries were laid, officials were adamant that the AUMF language sought to prevent an Iraq War–size conflict. 

Republicans trying to tie the AUMF debate to the Iran letter debate.
Several Republican lawmakers applied Twitter joke logic (event + event + words stringing them together = retweets) to the AUMF hearing by bringing up the letter that 47 senators had recently addressed to Iranian officials and the nuclear-agreement negotiations that spurred it. “I believe much of our strategy with regards to ISIS is being driven by desire not to upset Iran so that they don’t walk away from the negotiating table,” Senator Marco Rubio said to Kerry. “Tell me why I’m wrong.” Kerry responded by saying that “the facts completely contradict that” and “you are misreading that if you think there is not a mutual interest” in defeating ISIS

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, acknowledged that the administration did wonder how Iran would figure into the long-term future of the Middle East. “We are all concerned about what happens,” he said, “after the drums stop beating and ISIL is defeated.”

Congress Has Some Questions About the ISIS AUMF