President Barack Obama’s plans to ramp up U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State targets inside Iraq and potentially launch new ones inside Syria rely on a thirteen-year-old law authorizing military force against al Qaeda and its affiliates that he has publicly stated he would like to see repealed.
In a landmark speech last year in which he pledged to take the United States off a "perpetual wartime footing," Obama said that he would work with Congress to "refine" and "ultimately repeal" the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, a measure hastily passed in the chaotic, fear-filled days following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That measure authorized "all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons" responsible for the attacks."
In his remarks Wednesday, Obama made clear that he believes he can take action against Islamic State militants without congressional approval but extended an olive branch to Capitol Hill, saying that he welcomed "congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger." The White House is currently seeking congressional approval for a program to train and arm the Syrian opposition, one of the few things Obama doesn’t believe he can do unilaterally. To date, the administration has mostly sidestepped the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which mandates that the president seek congressional approval of any military action after 60 days of informing Congress that U.S. troops have been deployed in hostilities.
Indeed, the decision to rely on the AUMF further protects the White House from congressional oversight. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, a senior administration official said Obama’s legal justification for taking military action against the Islamic State relied, in part, on the 2001 AUMF that the president spoke of eliminating just fourteen months ago. "The president has authority to continue these operations beyond 60 days consistent with the War Powers Resolution because the operations are authorized by statute," the official said, referring to that measure’s requirement to secure congressional authorization 60 days after the introduction of U.S. troops.
But relying on the AUMF requires a creative reading of on the recent history of the Islamic State. Earlier this year, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the fugitive head of al Qaeda, severed all ties with the Islamic State, citing its brutal tactics. The Islamic State counts among its leaders and fighters many veterans of al Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor organization that spent years battling American troops across the country between 2003 and 2011. The Islamic State and al Qaeda are now fierce competitors in an increasingly bitter and bloody fight to become the world’s leading jihadi group.
According to the senior administration official, that split does not matter for the purposes of targeting the Islamic State under the AUMF because of its "longstanding relationship with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden" and "its long history of conducting, and continued desire to conduct, attacks against U.S. persons and interests." In addition, the official said, there is "extensive history of U.S. combat operations against ISIL dating back to the time the group first affiliated with AQ in 2004." ISIL is an alternate name for the group.
Describing the group as "supported by some individual members and factions" of groups aligned with al Qaeda, the official described the Islamic State as "the true inheritor of Osama bin Laden’s legacy."
As a result, "the president may rely on the 2001 AUMF as statutory authority for the use of force against ISIL, notwithstanding the recent public split between AQ’s senior leadership and ISIL," the official said.
At least some legislators on Capitol Hill are skeptical over the president’s approach and urged him to work more closely with Congress. "While much of the wording in the president’s speech was good, the substance of how we accomplish what he laid out is what matters," Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican, said in a statement. "I believe the president is exercising poor judgment by not explicitly seeking an authorization from Congress where consensus can be reached around a substantive plan of action and support can be built for an operation that he has described will take several years."
Asked whether Obama still supports the repeal of the AUMF while relying on it to authorize his latest air campaign, the official said that the administration "continues to support refining the 2001 AUMF to address more specifically the terrorism-related threats to U.S. national security that may require the limited use of U.S. military force." Notably, the official did not use the phrase "ultimately repeal" that the president deployed in his speech last year to describe his plans for the law.
"Part of the process of refining the 2001 AUMF would be to ensure that the president continues to have the authorities he needs to address the threat posed by ISIL, either through refining that statute or through some other legislative authority," the official said.
Administration officials may believe Obama can go it alone, but with the U.S. ramping up its air campaign in Iraq, sending hundreds more troops to Iraq, and preparing for strikes inside Syria, an anxious Congress will at some point soon want its voice to be heard. Wednesday’s speech was Obama’s first extended description of how he sees, and plans to fight, IS. It won’t be his last.