Earlier this year, the Obama Administration submitted to Congress a draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). President Obama, like President Bush before him, has claimed authorization for military activities to combat terrorism under a previous AUMF passed on Sept. 14, 2001 and dedicated to combating those responsible for the 9/11 attacks (the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were authorized under a separate AUMF). The emergence of IS and the simple passage of time prompted a re-examination of the terms of the prevailing AUMF. However, the White House and Congress each have reasons to pantomime action on an AUMF without committing to it. They reach beyond the standard legislative gridlock to matters of military strategy, preserving the president’s military authority, and simple partisan politics. Many observes see a new AUMF as unlikely politically or unnecessary constitutionally. Were it to happen, there is reason to consider framing it in a different way: on a regional basis, rather than against a specific military threat.
Start with the analysts who see a new AUMF as unnecessary. Max Boot, a conservative military historian, argues that U.S. military actions on executive authority have a long history, dating back to the early 19th Century Barbary Wars. Moreover, the Obama Administration explains that it seeks the new AUMF for reasons that are more propagandistic than constitutional; writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Micah Zenko quotes White House spokesman Josh Earnest’s argument: “It will send a clear signal to our enemies that if there is any doubt in their mind that the United States of America takes this threat very seriously, it will eliminate that doubt.”
Earnest’s quote telegraphs a larger issue: whether or not the AUMF is necessary constitutionally, the debate surrounding it highlights a political need to organize and constrain U.S. military activity. The AUMF debate may be more useful in clarifying policy as a forcing event than an actual AUMF would be in practice.
That debate has been forced, and it has pointed to the complexity of the problem. In January, Army Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey gave in interview outlining broad principles to which a new AUMF should adhere. Gen. Dempsey pointed to the need to avoid constraints on future action in a way that makes identifying and enforcing boundaries around such action difficult. While emphasizing that all military options should be preserved, Dempsey said that “In particular, it shouldn’t constrain activities geographically, because [ISIS] knows no boundaries [and] doesn’t recognize any boundaries – in fact it’s their intention to erase all boundaries to their benefit.”
What Dempsey requests is unrestricted authority to fight ISIS, a non-state actor. Congress’ war powers are designed to be administered against sovereign nations. They have changed as the nature of war has changed. Congress has declared war a total eleven times – all against sovereign nations – and six out of those 11 declarations pertained to enemy countries in World War II. There is no precedent for Congressional declarations of war against non-state actors.
A “regional AUMF” would codify the long-standing practice of executive “doctrines” governing U.S. policy towards particular regions. The Monroe Doctrine set U.S. policy in opposition to any foreign intervention into its sphere of influence in the Americas. President Jimmy Carter used his 1980 State of the Union Address to announce that the U.S. would defend its interests in the Persian Gulf by military force if necessary (the “Carter Doctrine.)” These executive statements amount to regional policies governing the use of force that were never codified by Congress, but which nonetheless influenced U.S. policy. Moreover, there is an active precedent for organizing U.S. military and diplomatic activities regionally in the way a regional AUMF would. The State Department has a Middle East and North Africa (MENA) section devoted to countries within that region. The Defense Department assigns the countries of the MENA region to its Central Command. An AUMF organized to address military threats within the MENA region – rather than against a specific actor within that region – would fall within the current logistical framework.
The idea of a regional AUMF presents a major drawback to presidents and generals alike. It infringes on the ability to “pick and choose” which conflicts in a given region merit U.S. action. However, the current debate acknowledges the need for AUMFs to be updated consistently. A three-year “sunset” clause is widely discussed as way to keep its terms from growing outdated. In that sense, each AUMF would be temporary. It would have to be: after all, ISIS did not exist three years ago. Debating new AUMF terms could (as now) lag well behind changing security needs. That may give further ammunition to those who see AUMFs as unnecessary. However, if they focus U.S. regional policy priorities and clarify objectives when America commits to using force, they are worthwhile. Given the lives in the balance on both sides of U.S. firing lines, the stakes merit more concerted attention to U.S. military strategy around the world.