The real reason for Obama’s new resolution on ISIS

By Jesse H. Rhodes 

On Wednesday afternoon President Obama sent a draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force to Congress, seeking explicit congressional authority for a limited military campaign against ISIS. The president wants the new authorization to supplement the 2001 AUMF – adopted in the wake of 9/11 – which Obama has already cited as legal authority to conduct military strikes in nations such as Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. He’s also already claimed authority to battle ISIS under the War Powers Resolution.

This raises an interesting question: given that Obama has already interpreted the 2001 AUMF to permit military strikes around the globe, why seek new authority from Congress to battle ISIS?

Over at Vox, Matthew Yglesias has argued that Obama’s main objective in seeking the new resolution is to limit presidential power in national security affairs. According to Yglesias, Obama is deeply concerned with the concentration of power in the executive provided by the 2001 AUMF. While he has been relatively restrained in exercising his authority under the AUMF so far, Obama is fearful that a future president might use the ambiguous terms of the authorization much more aggressively – for example, by “dispatching hundreds of thousands of troops to Nigeria to fight Boko Haram.” As Yglesias notes, Obama’s draft Authorization is a (slight) improvement on the 2001 AUMF: in addition to setting the precedent that new actions should be authorized under a new resolution, it limits the scope of authorized actions and sunsets after three years.

Pointing to these features of the resolution, Yglesias concludes that Obama’s ultimate objective is to “jolt Congress into limiting executive authority…not just his own authority, but his successor’s.” But there are several problems with this argument.

First, as Yglesias notes, the new AUMF would not actually tie the president’s hands as a practical matter. The 2001 AUMF would continue to stand; and, in any case, Obama and his successors would have little trouble creating new justifications for using force beyond the terms of the proposed authorization if they found it necessary or desirable.

Furthermore, Yglesias’ interpretation of Obama’s motives – that Obama wants to hem in future presidents’ room for maneuver in fighting terrorism – doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Obama faces the very serious and difficult problem of fighting ISIS right now; it’s unlikely that he’s overly worried with dealing with the longer-term (and much more abstract) problem of excessive presidential power. Furthermore, to the extent that Obama is concerned the scope of presidential power as a general matter, chances are that he would prefer to expand it. After all, one of great lessons of American history is that presidents have relentlessly pushed the envelope in foreign affairs, seeking to concentrate authority in the executive branch. It’s hard to see why Obama would be any different in this regard; indeed, Obama has already pushed the envelope.

Why, then, is Obama requesting a congressional vote for new authority to fight ISIS? Part of the answer is politics, plain and simple. Obama realizes that any fight against ISIS is going to be extremely difficult, involving considerable risks to American soldiers and uncertain prospects of success. The fact that Obama is requesting more authority suggests he believes further military action against ISIS is necessary. The political value of requesting a formal vote on a new resolution is that it forces members of Congress to stand up and register their support or opposition to broadening the fight. In effect, Obama is saying that if members of Congress want to expand the conflict against ISIS, they have to own it: no taking ambiguous positions now, and then criticizing the president later when things don’t go as well as hoped.

This move will have an especially devastating effect on congressional Republicans’ capacity to criticize the president’s dealings with ISIS. Arguably, Republicans’ strongest criticism of Obama to date is that he is weak on national security. Republicans have also been especially vocal in calling for more vigorous action against ISIS. However, if Republicans support the president’s request, they will suddenly lose the ability to mount an effective attack on his policy (unless things go terribly wrong, which of course is possible). Just as George W. Bush made political hay between 2002 and 2005 by attacking as “flip-floppers” Democrats who supported the 2001 AUMF and then criticized his policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama could charge Republicans with hypocrisy if they support his request and then turn against his management of the war.

Interestingly, though, Obama’s request is also good for American politics (though a request for a formal Declaration of War would be much better). As Yglesias notes, most members of Congress would probably prefer to remain ambiguous on this issue, for fear of picking the wrong side and then being punished in a future election. Put frankly, this kind of “blame avoidance” is bad for democracy, because it prevents voters from holding their representatives accountable for the decisions they make. By forcing members of Congress to vote on the authorization, Obama’s request will clarify to voters where their representatives stand on a matter of pressing national concern. This, in turn, can help them make more informed decisions in the voting booth in 2016. Small wonder many representatives aren’t thrilled about voting on the resolution!

In short, Obama isn’t calling for a new AUMF because he thinks he needs it, nor is he doing it because he wants to limit presidential power. Rather, the president’s request is a smart political play, but one that also serves the interests of the political system. If there is going to be a war, the least members of Congress can do is stand up and vote for it.

Jesse Rhodes is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is the author of An Education in Politics: The Origins and Evolution of No Child Left Behind. 

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One thought on “The real reason for Obama’s new resolution on ISIS

  1. I fully agree with your main thrust, but I have to say that your refutation of the second argument, about limiting future presidential authority, is a bit thin. The president isn’t doing what he appears to be doing because presidents don’t do that? Well, if he appears to be doing it, then maybe it’s something that presidents now do, sometimes. It may be subsidiary, a trade-off in exchange for achieving a bigger goal, but I would think it’s also possible to strive for two goals at once.

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