Normally I hate public name calling, although I must admit that contemporary congressional antics and sound bites move my blood pressure to the point of doing so in private. The title of this post isn’t really just an expression of frustration though, it is actually a serious question.
Once again, the subject of authorizing military force against ISIS is in the news. Its a continuation of the dialog which started back in February 2015, one based in a furor of Congressional calls for military action against ISIS that had begun months earlier.
This week, the leader of the House told the press that he was once again talking to colleagues about an Authorization for Military Force against ISIS. He referred to a recent “productive listening session” on the subject and the need for providing flexibility to the military. Yet beyond that, the statement quickly moved on to politics and criticism of Presidential leadership – with the disclaimer that the Administration does not really need a new AUMF because it “already has all the authority to take the fight to Islamist terrorists that it needs.”
Now the question is, does Mr. Ryan actually believe that and despite the staff and legal resources available to him is he ignorant of the fact that the only AUMF approved by Congress specifically stated that the President is only authorized to use force against those individuals and groups which had carried out, supported or enabled the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. Is he not aware of the fact that the language in that legislation was altered to ensure that in a concern for Congressional caution, the Presidential authority did not extend beyond those individuals or groups personally involved in the 2001 attacks? If you would like the details of that, I refer you to in Shadow Warfare were we discuss the give and take on that AUMF in some detail as well as the fact that President Bush intentionally asked Congress not to give him the broader powers associated with a declaration of war – yet immediately began using the term “war on terror”.
Later, after military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, Congress commissioned a legal assessment on the 2001 AUMF and its limitations; the opinion provided to them was that the language in the AUMF had been specifically crafted to focus only on the 9/11 attackers. Which leaves us with the only Congressional legislation in place being designed to be limited, legally not extending to a broader war on terror and with Congress obtaining the legal opinion confirming that to be true.
So does Mr. Ryan, as speaker of the house, not have anyone who can give him a true read on an authorization now some fifteen years old, which clearly limited Presidential authority – yet which everyone has been using as justification for an immense level of global military action? At this point its clear that the 2001 AUMF is as irrelevant to current military activities as the Tonkin Gulf resolution was to the war across south east Asia. So is the Speaker of the House ignorant of Congress’s failure of actual military oversight – or is this political hypocrisy? I honestly don’t know.
As to the leadership in the Senate, well that is even more confusing. Following Mr. Ryan’s remarks, the leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, announced that Ryan was wasting his time and that no new AUMF was going to be seriously considered. He too seems to have a total lack of knowledge on the history of the AUMF that is in place and its limitations. His reason for opposing any new AUMF is a bit different though, it seems that it’s not an issue of one not being needed, but rather that one passed now might “tie the hands” of the next elected President in regard to opposing ISIS.
“I think an AUMF, an authorization to use military force, that ties the president’s hands behind his back is not something I would want to do to a new president who’s going to have to clean up this mess,” he said.
Let me see if I follow that, so Congress is going to default on setting any specific direction for military action against ISIS – McConnell clearly feels that the current President has not done enough – but rather than taking charge of the matter and directing something more, the caution is to wait for a year so as to avoid constraining whoever might be elected as the next commander in chief. I can see it now on a tactical level, the current commander of a military operation says to his staff – well I’m not going to give you any orders now because I don’t want your next commander to be unduly constrained by what we do when he comes on board next year. (yes, that was intentionally sarcastic).
So is McConnell ignorant of the current AUMF limitations, well it certainly sounds like it. Is he being hypocritical about Congress not exercising its strategic national security responsibility? Without being inside his head I can’t say, but I can say that his logic, and the consistent position of Congress in not exercising any real involvement in national security decisions is agonizingly predictable.