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Let Me Make This as Unclear as Possible

Why the Obama administration’s authorization for the use of military force against the Islamic State is intentionally an open-ended ticket to forever war … again.

Secretary Of State John Kerry Testifies Before Senate Foreign Relations Committee On Combating ISIL
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 09: An anti-war protestor holds a sign behind Secretary of State John Kerry as he testifies about a congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force against the Islamic State, the violent jihadist group that has seized parts of Syria and Iraq, during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill December 9, 2014 in Washington, DC. Kerry debated back and forth with senators from both parties about the differences between what Congress is proposing for the AUMF and what the Obama Administration wants. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Aug. 7, President Barack Obama declared the start of the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State (otherwise known in U.S. government-speak as ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) when he “authorized targeted airstrikes, if necessary, to help forces in Iraq as they fight to break the siege of Mount Sinjar and protect the civilians trapped there.” White House officials emphasized that the foreseeable military missions were narrow and focused, as senior advisor Benjamin Rhodes described it: “very specific missions of protecting our people and personnel and our facilities in Baghdad and Erbil,” and “to deal with the humanitarian crisis on Mount Sinjar.” On Sept. 10, with virtually no congressional or public debate, Obama ordered the expansion of this military campaign to commence an open-ended air war to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.”

The Obama administration has since repeatedly claimed that the president had the constitutional authority that he needed to order all the military actions that had taken place. Nevertheless, the White House welcomed the passage of an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), but not because it was legally required or would have any demonstrable impact on how the military campaign was being executed. Rather, as White House spokesman Josh Earnest proclaimed, “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 their threat very seriously, this would eliminate that doubt.”

Thus, an AUMF focused on ISIL is admittedly unneeded and inconsequential, but should be pursued because it will somehow demonstrate U.S. resolve to a committed terrorist group. Seriously?

Why dedicated — or even prospective — Islamic State fighters would care about the passage of meaningless legislation in Washington, D.C., or be deterred from continuing their own military campaign, has not been explained. U.S. military officials are painfully honest about the challenges to understanding ISIL’s underlying motivations and ambitions. As Special Operations Command-Central commander Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata acknowledged in a just-released edited volume on the capabilities of the Islamic State: “I believe that we do not yet fully comprehend that which we are contesting.” That the White House actually believes Sunni jihadi terrorists will be swayed by the AUMF says a great deal more about American hubris than the country’s resolve.

Still, the political spectacle of debating what the White House and Congress admit is a pointless AUMF, to authorize a war that started over eight months ago, has unfolded in Washington with the expected posturing and absurdity expected. In January, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey detailed three principles that the Pentagon sought: 1) “All options should be on the table, and then we can debate whether we want to use them”; 2) “It shouldn’t constrain activities geographically”; 3) “Constraints on time, or a ‘sunset clause,’ I just don’t think it’s necessary.” However, Dempsey’s request for unbound and infinite support was not reflected in the White House’s draft AUMF submitted to Congress on Feb. 11.

Instead, the draft AUMF proposed a vague set of open-ended authorizations, three of which were notable. First, it would not authorize “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” Second, the use of force would be used only “against ISIL or associated persons or forces.” Third, the legislation “shall terminate three years after the date of the enactment.” When Earnest was asked if this language was fuzzy, he replied: “Intentionally so … because we believe that it’s important that there aren’t overly burdensome constraints that are placed on the commander in chief.” At the very least it is commendable that a public affairs official would be so transparent about being so opaque.

The fuzziness begins with the concept of “enduring,” which has no definition or elaboration in military doctrine. On Feb. 25, Secretary of State John Kerry explained: “Enduring means Iraq, Afghanistan, long-term ground operations. You could obviously define it in terms of months, not years.” That same day, Gen. John Allen stated: “Enduring might only be two weeks. But enduring might be two years.” On March 3, Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of Central Command, put it: “We’d have to evaluate the requirements on a mission-by-mission basis…. But in terms of, you know, a mark on the wall of exactly how long ‘enduring’ is, that’s ill-defined or not defined.” And finally, on Wednesday, March 11, at a Senate hearing, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter defined the “outer limit” of enduring to be “something like Iraq or Afghanistan wars.”

Likewise, the notion of “associated persons or forces” is elastic and imprecise — again, intentionally so. As Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth acknowledged in a House hearing on March 3: “the associated forces, which is designed to give us some breadth and discretion as to who we go after.” But Secretary Carter muddled things further eight days later by admitting that associated persons or forces “can be interpreted” to cover Boko Haram in Nigeria, and “could apply to operations in and around Libya.” Carter added that this ill-defined classification does “err on the side of flexibility,” because, “We need to be able to do what we need to do to protect ourselves.”

This latest AUMF phrasing is even less specific than that used in the 2001 AUMF against the perpetrators of 9/11 — which mentioned “associated forces,” not “persons” — but has been used by Presidents Bush and Obama to justify roughly 525 drone strikes against a broad range of suspected terrorist and militant groups, several of which did not exist in 2001. The Obama administration has consistently refused to say what groups are deemed an “associated force” of al Qaeda and can therefore be targeted with force. We should expect this prospective AUMF to be similarly expanded to target “persons” who are deemed enemies based upon a wholly secret classification system.

Finally, the proposed three-year timeframe for the AUMF is the least meaningful limitation of them all. As President Obama has maintained — and assuredly future presidents will as well — this AUMF that Congress is currently debating is legally unnecessary and will have no operational impact. Thus, if it is allowed to expire in 2018, the president at that time will simply default to the commander in chief executive authority position that the White House currently proclaims and Congress tacitly accepts. In addition, it is politically unimaginable that Congress, which has been demonstrably deferential to the executive branch and weak in its oversight, would suddenly pass substantive legislation that attempted to halt or defund an ongoing air war against the Islamic State.

In a telling exchange last week, Wormuth was asked by Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) how she would define victory against the Islamic State. Wormuth declared: “When ISIL is no longer a threat to Iraq, to its existence, to our partners and allies in the region, and to the United States.” O’Rourke pushed the Pentagon’s top policy official further: “So as long as ISIL is seen as a threat to ourselves or any of our partners around the world we have not won?” To this, Wormuth replied: “I think that’s fair.”

At Wednesday’s Senate hearing, Gen. Dempsey was similarly asked what victory over ISIL would look like. The most senior uniformed U.S. military officer answered: “That’s not for us to declare. Their ideology has to be defeated by those in the region.” But just who declares victory on behalf of the U.S.-led coalition, or how air strikes help in defeating an ideology, was not explained.

These two contrasting depictions of victory are a long way from Obama’s previously articulated strategic objectives to “destroy” and later “defeat” the Islamic State. But the Obama administration has been consistent since Aug. 7 in its use of fuzzy language, the gradual mission creep, and shifting implausible objectives. Now, 216 days and more than 2,200 strikes later, Congress is assuming its expected role of debating the language of what is, by all accounts, a meaningless AUMF. A uniquely brave senator or congressional member might better use hearings or floor debates to explore how this has become the normal state of affairs for how the United States goes to war.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

About the Author

Micah Zenko is Whitehead Senior Fellow at Chatham House and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy @MicahZenko

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