This post was updated at 4:45 p.m. ET
If you’ve wondered what happened to President Obama’s request for congressional authorization for military action against ISIS, you are not alone. Some members of Congress have grown impatient enough that they have tried to force leadership in the House and Senate to act.
The House voted down a measure Wednesday (139-288) that would direct the president to remove any U.S. military forces from Iraq or Syria that were sent there since last Aug. 7. The only exception would have been to provide security at diplomatic facilities. The troops now serving there would have had until the end of the year to leave. That is, unless Congress approved a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF), as the White House has requested.
The measure was drafted by Democratic members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, principally Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. No one expects McGovern’s measure to be approved, but it is meant to pressure Speaker John Boehner, who has thus far declined to bring the president’s request for explicit approval of current deployments or further deployments in the battle against the self-declared Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, a bipartisan team of Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona have tried to force their colleagues to confront the president’s request.
“It’s inexcusable that Congress has let 10 months of war go by without authorizing the U.S. mission against ISIL,” Kaine had said in announcing the proposed amendment.
Kaine introduced a version of an AUMF as an amendment to an unrelated State Department bill. After a brief debate in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kaine withdrew the amendment at the request of Sen. Bob Corker, committee chairman, who agreed to hold a future meeting about it.
“We’ll begin talking about a plausible way forward and see if we think there is a way to bring this back to the committee in such a way that we could actually pass it on the floor and pass it in the House,” Corker said.
But despite Corker’s promise of a future meeting, few in the Senate or the House expect such an AUMF debate or vote any time soon. Corker’s actions this week echo what the chairman had said just before Kaine and Flake introduced the amendment.
“Burning up legislative time, burning up capital, burning up goodwill on something that you know is purely an intellectual exercise when there are so many pressing matters? Maybe that’s not so prudent,” Corker said in an interview with Politico late last month.
Corker clearly has reason to worry that a proposed authorization or a debate on one might not be fruitful. Either might force legislators to take firm and perhaps unpopular positions on ISIS strategy or to seek a common ground that may not exist. Any draft version of an AUMF on the table soon makes the status quo — operating on the basis of the 2001 AUMF — look better and better.
Considerations of such authorizations have happened several times in recent decades. Best known among them are the votes for the use of force against Iraq in 1991, against al-Qaida in 2001 and against the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2002, which produced the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that eventually involved hundreds of thousands of combat troops on the ground in that country. Sovereignty was restored to Iraq in 2004 and President Obama reduced the U.S. troop level there to a few thousand in 2012.
Sentiment took a sharp turn, however, in 2014, when a new terrorist force emerged, calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In the months since, the remarkably resilient ISIS has grown strong enough in Iraq to take such significant cities such as Mosul, Tikrit and Ramadi. It has also become by far the strongest contender among the several groups warring against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Whenever ISIS releases videos of executed hostages or captures another city, a chorus arises in the United States calling for more robust military counterforce. For months, members of Congress called on President Obama to seek an AUMF. But when he finally did so earlier this year, the climate for such a measure suddenly changed.
Congress is clearly divided. Many Democrats and some Republicans fear a fresh AUMF would lead to wider and more extensive military involvement, including a big build-up in ground troops. But many Republicans, and some Democrats, fear an AUMF would be too limited — tying the president’s hands in the fight against a significant new enemy.
Public approval for military force against ISIS is higher than approval levels before the United States entered into previous wars. In the weeks leading up to President George H.W. Bush’s request for congressional authorization for the Gulf War, support for a military campaign hovered around 50 percent. A decade later, before George W. Bush requested congressional authorization for his own campaign in Iraq, the share of the population favoring invasion hovered just over 50 percent.
By contrast, in recent polling, approval of a U.S. campaign against Islamic militants rose to 63 percent in February 2015 from 57 percent in October 2014.
Nonetheless, Americans do say they want Congress to be involved. An overwhelming 79 percent of Americans want the President to get congressional approval before deploying U.S. forces for military action on foreign soil.
For now, Congress seems content to permit the de facto war against ISIS to continue without a formal declaration, AUMF or other official imprimatur. In any case, Obama isn’t the first president to use U.S. military forces without a tailor-made congressional authorization.
In the 1990s, President Clinton deployed troops to Kosovo (part of what had been Yugoslavia) without congressional approval, even though polls showed 60 percent of Americans wanted Congress to have the final authority. Before that, President Truman initiated the Korean War without congressional approval, saying U.S. presence was merely a “police action.”
Today, the difference is that the 2001 authorization may be said to technically allow Obama to deploy the U.S. military, while Truman and Clinton had no such authorization. Though the 2001 AUMF isn’t a perfect fit for the campaign against Islamic militants today, it may just be good enough for both sides, at least for now.