Obama makes formal request for war authorization against Islamic State

President Obama asked Congress Wednesday for formal authority to use the U.S. military to combat the Islamic State, calling the group “a grave threat to . . . the national security of the United States and its allies and partners.”

The request for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, marks the first time Obama has requested approval for military action in his six-year presidency and comes more than six months after the start of U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State.

The authorization includes no geographic limitations, in keeping with the administration’s view that the group is seeking expansion beyond Iraq and Syria and with the Islamic State’s own claim to head a “caliphate” spanning the Muslim world.

It would give Obama the power to use military force “as the President determines to be necessary and appropriate” against the Islamic State or “associated persons or forces.”

The authorization would not permit “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” That provision refers to Obama’s pledge not to deploy ground troops in Iraq or Syria.


In an accompanying letter to Congress, Obama explained that the proposed legislation “would not authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operations like those our Nation conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Instead, he said, it would “provide the flexibility to conduct ground combat operations in other, more limited circumstances,” including rescue operations or targeted attacks on Islamic State leadership.


U.S. troops could also be used to “enable” airstrikes, presumably through spotting and targeting on the ground, and to render “advice and assistance to partner forces.”


The approval would expire in three years, allowing a new president and Congress to decide whether it needs to be extended or expanded.


It would also repeal the 2002 AUMF under which George W. Bush invaded Iraq but would leave in place the 2001 authorization against the al-Qaeda perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Both have been cited by the Obama administration as legal justification for its military action in Iraq and Syria.


In his letter to Congress, Obama said that he remained committed to “working with the Congress and the American people to refine, and ultimately repeal, the 2001 AUMF,” and said the new authorization “could serve as a model . . . to tailor” the earlier authority.


The proposed new authorization provides the first opportunity for Congress to fully debate U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria. It comes nearly two years after Obama first said that he would seek new congressional approval for action against newly rising international terrorist groups. When he authorized airstrikes in the summer against the Islamic State, the president repeated his desire for new authorization.


But Congress and Obama differed on who should take the lead on proposing new language, with each calling on the other to go first. Lawmakers have introduced and debated several bills that drew neither bipartisan agreement nor administration approval.


Congressional differences emerged in stark relief in December, when the Democratic-led Senate Foreign Relations Committee split along party lines to approve a bill that never made it to the floor. While Democrats argued in favor of the bill’s time limit and a prohibition against boots on the ground, Republicans said such restraints would tie the president’s hands in dealing with the Islamic State threat.


It was last month that the White House shifted into high gear, consulting with leading lawmakers and composing its own preferred language.


The relatively broad parameters of Obama’s request appear designed to address the competing interests on both sides of the aisle.


Republicans have warned that debate could take several months. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plans to huddle with his members Wednesday afternoon once the White House formally releases the request, while the GOP chairmen of the House and Senate armed services and foreign relations committees are preparing for hearings that will ask for testimony from top Pentagon leaders and Secretary of State John F. Kerry.


“What people want to fully understand is a plausible way forward towards success,” Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters Tuesday, adding, “It won’t be something that by any chance will be marked up quickly.”


“I don’t think there’s any rush,” he added later, because “it’s not as if the language is going to change our activities on the ground at present, is it?”


Two Democrats who introduced authorization language last year said they were pleased with the administration effort but had problems with some of the language.


“My first reaction is ‘finally, thank goodness,’ ” said Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.). “We’re in our seventh month of war, and we’re going to finally have this discussion.”


Kaine said he supported the sunset provision in the authorization and could live with the lack of geographical limitations. But among his concerns, he said, is ground-troops language that “is too vague for me. We learned from the 2001 authorization that vagueness is bad.”


The 2001 AUMF has been used by Obama, and was used by Bush before him, to provide legal justification for military action against groups “associated” with al-Qaeda that are largely independent of it, including the Islamic State, in a number of countries.


The new legislation defines “associated persons or forces” as “individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” ISIL is one of several terms for the Islamic State.


Kaine said debate over the legislation would include “a lot of questioning” about the U.S. mission in Syria.


Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who proposed AUMF language in the House last year, said he, too, would like to see the prohibition on troop deployments “more narrowly drawn, both in terms of the use of ground troops and putting a geographic limitation on the use of force. . . . What they have in mind is still fairly broad and subject to such wide interpretation that it could be used in almost any context.”


Schiff also questioned the lack of a sunset provision on the 2001 al-Qaeda authorization. “Given the history” of its use to expand presidential warmaking power, he said, “I think we have to be careful.”


But others will be pushing for an open-ended authorization, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain said Tuesday that he would support a new authorization only if it places no restrictions on troop movements.


After months of consultations with lawmakers in both parties, the White House on Tuesday dispatched chief of staff Denis McDonough and chief counsel Neil Eggleston to a weekly luncheon for Democratic senators in hopes of winning their support.


But emerging from the meeting, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said that the proposal “is the opening salvo; there’s nothing finalized yet.”