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The Weird AUMF Debate

Obama is prepared to let Congress have its ritual with the understanding that he will ignore its decision unless it approves his war.

Robert Golan-Vilella remarks on the bizarre nature of the current AUMF (Authorization of the Use of Military Force) debate:

However, in this post I want to zoom out and make one very general point about just how weird this whole process is. Namely, this entire debate is about a hypothetical AUMF that the White House does not think it needs for a war that started over three months ago [emphasis in original].

The debate is very weird, but then the war that the resolution is supposed to authorize is also a very odd one. By the government’s own admission, ISIS doesn’t pose a direct threat to the United States, it had no plans to attack the U.S., and couldn’t carry out those plans if it had any, but the president claimed to have the authority to order attacks against them anyway. Every legal argument the administration has used to back this up has been risible, but we have already seen in the Libyan war that this administration has no problem hiding behind preposterous arguments to justify its evasions of what the law requires.

The truly strange thing about the new AUMF debate is that the administration wants to go through the motions of debating and voting on one. Obama made clear in 2011 and again last year that he thinks he can start wars anywhere he likes on his own authority. Voting on this AUMF is just an exercise in rubber-stamping a war that will continue whether there is a vote or not. More than any recent president, Obama has treated Congress’ involvement in the decision to use force overseas as an acceptable but ultimately irrelevant ritual. Now he is prepared to let Congress have its ritual with the understanding that he will ignore its decision unless it approves the war that he already started. To some extent, this makes debating the language of the resolution somewhat pointless. The war will continue even if both houses reject the resolution as they should.

Ideally, the resolution should be very narrow and authorize as little as possible. The version put forward by Virginia Sen. Kaine is a good start. However, the administration has already shown that it will egregiously misinterpret the language of such a resolution however it sees fit, as it has already done with the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, so the resolution could be worded as carefully or recklessly as one likes and the executive would still abuse it to justify whatever the president has decided to do. If a resolution is going to be passed one way or another, it would be better if it strictly limited the length and scope of the authorization for a war against ISIS, if only so that it makes the administration’s eventual violations of those limits more obvious and harder to deny. Since we already know that Congress won’t act to halt the illegal war, that will have to be the best that it can do.