Obama to Seek Congressional Authorization for ISIS Campaign

by Jens David Ohlin

Huge news coming from the White House last night and today: the President will ask Congress for specific authorization for military action against ISIS.

This is a welcome development. The White House had previously argued that military action against ISIS was already authorized under the 9/11 AUMF, the Iraq AUMF, or some combination of both. None of these arguments was particularly convincing. The 9/11 AUMF is inapplicable because ISIS was excommunicated from al-Qaeda long ago and is now a competitor to it. The Iraq AUMF is temporally and geographically problematic. The temporal problem stems from the fact that the Iraq war is over and the original authorization died with it. The geographical problem is that it is unclear why a congressional authorization to invade Iraq should give the White House authorization to fight a war in Syria. As a final matter, I’m not sure how mixing and matching the two authorizations helps matters in any meaningful way.

The White House says that Obama still believes that he has authority to engage ISIS even without a new authorization, which complicates how this incident should be viewed as precedent. If the request for authorization is indeed supererogatory, then Obama has at least preserved, for the time being, his broad interpretation of the prior statutory authorizations. Until they are repealed, this is still a relevant issue. However, his decision to go to Congress must carry some weight regardless of what he says about it being discretionary or not.

Will Congress pass an authorization? You bet. Everyone knows that ISIS is a regional threat and a growing threat to the homeland. Furthermore, I find Obama’s timing here somewhat curious. Apparently he was waiting until after the mid-term elections to announce that he was seeking congressional approval. I have no idea why (as a matter of politics). If he had sought authorization before the election and received it, this would have strengthened his image as a foreign policy president dealing with the most pressing and emerging threats. Furthermore, thinking of this as a “new” war helps his image. If it is viewed as an “old” war, he is open to criticism that the situation was caused by his failure to deal with the Iraq War appropriately. On the other hand, if Congress had denied him the authorization, he could have used that denial as a sword against the Republicans going into the mid-term elections.


7 Responses

  1. Jens, If Obama had gone to Congress before the elections, and Congress had denied it (or simply failed to act – the more likely result) the legality of the operation would have been in doubt. I’m not sure that would have given him much of a sword for purposes of the midterms.

    You’re probably right that he now gets the specific authorization. Not sure it’s a cinch, though. It is unlikely to be a broad authorization, so there will at least be a lot of haggling on the details, and it’s not impossible that the Republicans insist on terms that aren’t acceptable to the White House — in which case Obama just falls back on the existing authorities and we are back where we started.

  2. I agree that the authorization is likely to happen because ISIS poses such a great threat. I also think this is a political move. Obama has been heavily criticized for attempting to take unilateral action on other issues recently and I can understand why he would seek cover in this instance. If this new military action does not go as planned, no one can point the finger solely at Obama. Congress will have to take some responsibility as well. If I’m being optimistic, maybe this is an attempt to collaborate, increase good will between the two branches, and mend relationships.

    Either way, it sounds like Obama still believes that he is legally authorized to make this decision and if that’s true, he must have some political incentive to seek Congressional authorization.

  3. What bothers me is that he will be asking Congress for more $$ – in the billions AGAIN!
    Our country at this point has NO MONEY! Personally, I am sick and tired of Washington using our hard earned money every time a crisis (or in this case isis) occurs.

  4. Obama does not need approval from Congress to effectuate collective self-defense authorized under the U.N. Charter. U.S. Const., Art. II, section 3. However, he needs Congress for the money! U.S. taxpayers keep paying for the flow of oil for Europe and the PRC and for the Opium flow from Afghanistan.

  5. I think seeking congressional authorization is a smart political move, by smoothing down the ruffled feathers of Congress in this instance where an approval is pretty much guaranteed Obama sets the stage for at least trying to work together for the rest of his presidency. And even if Congress wont work with him through the rest of his presidency which seems to be the tone of the GOP, at least the democratic party will have one instance to point to where they conceded and went to the table to try and work together.

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