When President Obama went on national television in September to announce that he was going to war against Islamic State, he said, in what seemed like a throwaway line, that he welcomed "congressional support for this effort." On Wednesday, to his credit, he went further and proposed specific language for a new three-year Authorization for Use of Military Force — although he continued to insist that "existing statutes" give him all the authority he needs.
Even if Obama doesn't want to admit it, the spirit and the letter of the Constitution require him to seek congressional approval for such a major military campaign. But in doing so, he is proposing language that is overly broad. What's more, his proposal leaves untouched a 2001 resolution authorizing the use of force against those who "planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001" — language that has been stretched to justify a series of military operations, including the targeted killing in Yemen of Anwar Awlaki, a U.S. citizen.
As a group of legal scholars noted in a letter to the president this week, it "is already the longest-running use-of-force authorization in history." In a letter to Congress, Obama said, "I remain committed to working with the Congress and the American people to refine, and ultimately repeal, the 2001 AUMF." But he said virtually the same thing in a speech in May 2013, and nothing happened.
A better approach is that proposed by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), under which the 2001 resolution would expire in three years.
Other aspects of the president's proposal also cry out for modification. It authorizes the use of force against Islamic State anywhere in the world, whereas Schiff's proposal would confine the authority to Iraq and Syria, where the group is now active. We prefer Schiff's approach. If Islamic State were to expand its operations to another country, Obama or his successor would be free to ask Congress for additional authority.
A final area for improvement involves the question of whether U.S. ground forces might be used in the war against Islamic State. Schiff's resolution rules out the "deployment of ground forces in a combat role," although it would allow the use of special forces and military trainers. Obama's language is murkier. It says that U.S. forces may not engage in "enduring offensive ground combat operations." Obama told Congress that his resolution doesn't contemplate "long-term, large-scale ground combat operations like those our nation conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan"; rather, he wants to be able to use U.S. forces to rescue captured U.S. personnel or target Islamic State leadership. But the resolution itself isn't that narrowly drawn. Congress must refine it.
We agree with Obama that, in addition to committing acts of savagery and sadism, Islamic State poses a threat "to the people and stability of Iraq, Syria, and the broader Middle East, and to U.S. national security." The U.S. is right to fight this menace. But in blessing a military response, Congress must carefully weigh its words and their possible consequences.