There are few things in the world more problematic than a worried politician in an election year. The rise of militants around the world has got politicians in Congress nervous and looking for a solution, with one House member proposing the U.S. declare war on all of them, infinitely, and with no limitations.
After the 9/11 attacks nearly 13 years ago, Congress rushed to provide a response. The result: the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), designed to target and punish the perpetrators. In writing the AUMF, however, the lawmakers left substantial wiggle-room for first the Bush administration, then the Obama White House, to interpret it as they saw fit to conduct a wider “war on terror.” The 2001 AUMF has been the legal justification for not just the American-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but also drone strikes in Pakistan against Al Qaeda, missile launches in Yemen, and this weekend’s attack in Somalia targeting the leader of terrorist group al-Shabaab.
But Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) has a plan to take on even the groups that fall outside of the AUMF’s wide scope. Wolf on Wednesday told The Hill that when Congress returns from its vacation, he would introduce legislation that would override the 2001 AUMF and give the Obama administration all the justification it needs to carry out strikes against ISIS’ bases in Syria. Titled the ‘‘Authorization for Use of Military Force against International Terrorism Act’,” Wolf’s bill would greatly expand the already overly broad mandate given under the 2001 AUMF:
The President is authorized, with the close consultation, coordination, and cooperation with NATO and regional allies, to use all necessary and appropriate force against those countries, organizations, or persons associated with or supporting terrorist groups, including al Qaeda and its regional affiliates, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, al Shabaab, Boko Haram, and any other emerging regional terrorist groups that share a common violent extremist ideology with such terrorist groups, regional affiliates, or emerging terrorist groups, in order to eliminate all such terrorist groups and prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States or its allies by such terrorist groups, countries, organizations, or persons.
There is also no expiration date attached to the bill, leaving it open-ended and in effect for basically forever. “This resolution would provide clear authority for the president and our military, working with coalition partners, to go after these terrorists, whether in Syria, Iraq or elsewhere,” Wolf told The Hill. “We cannot continue operating on outdated authorities passed 13 years ago; it is time for this Congress to vote.”
Obama last year pledged to finally sunset the 2001 AUMF during a major speech last year, in which he said he would work with Congress to “refine, and ultimately repeal” the law. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is providing a new headache, however, one that the AUMF doesn’t cover. While broad, the law allows the President to go after “those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” Due to a split between ISIS and Al Qaeda, there’s no reading of the AUMF that grants legal justification for the White House to target the group outside of Iraq, where the government has given the U.S. permission to act.
Wolf’s bill isn’t the only proposal currently circulating through the halls of Congress. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) on Tuesday also said that he would be introducing a bill allowing the White House to legally take action against ISIS in Syria. “We must go after ISIS right away because the U.S. is the only one that can put together a coalition that can stop this group that’s intent on barbaric cruelty,” said Nelson, who represents the home state of journalist Stephen Sotloff — who ISIS recently beheaded — and his family.
Based on how the 2001 AUMF has been abused, the introduction of an even broader authorization is giving security experts pause. “Congress must authorize military action against ISIS,” CAP senior fellow Ken Gude said in an email to ThinkProgress, but Wolf’s approach would be an “absolute disaster” for the U.S. “It would commit the U.S. to an unwinnable war against virtually every terrorist group in the world at a cost in blood and treasure that would guarantee our decline,” Gude concluded.
Mieke Eoyang, the national security director at Third Way, agreed, saying that Wolf’s bill is “insanely broad.” Eoyang noted that the language in the bill was framed as “including” certain groups, but not limiting the number of targets that could be put into the cross-hairs. It would also allow attacks on any coutnry on the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list, including Cuba, Iran and Syria, she added, but noted that the bill doesn’t stand much of a chance politically. “President Obama has repeatedly made clear that he would veto any bill that expands the 2001 AUMF,” Eoyang said. “I don’t even think Wolf could get it out of his caucus.”
For weeks, it looked as though Congress would be more than willing to punt on voting on military action against ISIS, given the looming elections. Instead, the legislators seemed content to let President Obama continue to launch airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq — more than 100 since early August — and build up support for a coalition to take any further action against the group. Following Sotloff’s murder, however, there appears to be a new surge of support for some form of official record of approval for further airstrikes.
“We are scheduling a hearing upon our return and requesting the secretary of state to present a plan, a strategy focused on rolling back ISIS, defeating ISIS through the use of airstrikes and the support of those with common interests,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Tuesday.