Obama’s Dual View of War Power Seeks Limits and Leeway
WASHINGTON — In seeking authorization for his six-month-old military campaign against the Islamic State terrorist group, President Obamaon Wednesday did something that few if any of his predecessors have done: He asked Congress to restrict the ability of the commander in chief to wage war against an overseas enemy.
The proposed legislation Mr. Obama sent to Capitol Hill would impose a three-year limit on American action that has been conducted largely from the air and, while allowing Special Operations commandos and other limited missions, would rule out sustained, large-scale ground combat. It would also finally repeal the expansive 2002 congressional measure that authorized President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.
But even as Mr. Obama proposed some handcuffs on his power, he left behind the key to those shackles should he or his successor decide they are too confining. While his draft resolution would rescind the 2002 authority, it would leave in place a separate measure passed by Congress in 2001 authorizing the president to conduct a global war against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. With that still the law of the land, Mr. Obama and the next president would retain wide latitude to order military operations in the name of fighting terrorism.
It was that essential contradiction in Mr. Obama’s proposal that shaped the contours of the emerging debate in Congress. On one side, Republicans said Wednesday that the president had outlined too many limits on the war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. On the other side, some liberal Democrats said the residual power of the 2001 measure and the language of Mr. Obama’s own proposal were so elastic as to leave the president virtually unfettered.
That essential contradiction at the heart of the president’s proposal captured the one that has characterized Mr. Obama’s own six-year management of the Situation Room. He has repeatedly aspired to end the nation’s “perpetual war footing,” as he terms it, and curb the president’s power to use force — even as he availed himself of the authority he inherited from Mr. Bush and then expanded it.
“In a way, that’s been the story of his presidency,” said Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor who, as a top lawyer in Mr. Bush’s Justice Department, was at the heart of the last administration’s debates about presidential power. “He’s been talking during his entire presidency about wanting to restrain himself. But in practice, he’s been expanding his power.”
Mr. Obama’s effort to define boundaries to war power, even with escape hatches, turns presidential history on its head. Presidents typically resist congressional encroachment and assert the broadest possible interpretation of their ability to order the military into combat.
Harry S. Truman sent troops into bloody battles in Korea without asking Congress to declare war. Lyndon B. Johnson proposed no time limits in the Gulf of Tonkin resolution during Vietnam. Bill Clinton waged the Kosovo war without congressional authorization. The measures authorizing the two wars in Iraq fought by George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush were notably broad. Presidents of both parties have refused to acknowledge the constitutionality of the War Powers Act of 1973, a post-Vietnam attempt by Congress to rein in presidential authority.
Even under Mr. Obama, the United States military has carried out more than 1,900 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State over the last six months without an explicit new act of Congress. In a letter to lawmakers on Wednesday, Mr. Obama repeated that he believes he has the authority under current law to conduct such a campaign. But he said the mission would be better off with a show of bipartisan support and emphasized the differences between what he now seeks from Congress and what his predecessors have.
“It is not the authorization of another ground war, like Afghanistan or Iraq,” Mr. Obama said in remarks from the White House. While he has sent 2,600 American troops back to Iraq in a support role, he said, “I’m convinced that the United States should not get dragged back into another prolonged ground war in the Middle East.” He added, “I do not believe America’s interests are served by endless war, or by remaining on a perpetual war footing.”
At the same time, he left himself some room to refine his past pledge against putting “boots on the ground.” The proposed measure would rule out “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” But in a letter to Congress accompanying the proposal, Mr. Obama envisioned the possibility of limited ground action “such as rescue operations” or the use of “Special Operations forces to take military action against ISIL leadership.” He also said the legislation would allow the use of ground forces for intelligence gathering, spotting ground targets for airstrikes and planning assistance to ground troops of allies like the Iraqi government.
“If we had actionable intelligence about a gathering of ISIL leaders, and our partners didn’t have the capacity to get them, I would be prepared to order our special forces to take action, because I will not allow these terrorists to have a safe haven,” Mr. Obama said in his remarks.
Lawmakers and lawyers said the phrase “enduring offensive ground combat operations” was vague enough to allow many possible actions, as was the stated target of the Islamic State and “associated persons or forces.” In a sense, what Mr. Obama was proposing was a statement of intent along with a promise of restraint that he or his successor might be able to work around legally but that would be politically problematic to ignore.
“What they’re saying is some ground operations are O.K., some boots on the ground are O.K., some offensive is O.K., some combat is O.K., and it can even go on for a bit,” said John Bellinger, the top State Department lawyer under the younger Mr. Bush. “But they don’t want Afghanistan. They don’t want Iraq. They don’t want occupation. They don’t want an invasion.”
That left Mr. Obama criticized by the right and the left, underscoring the difficulties he will face finding a consensus on a measure that can pass.
“I don’t feel this is a constraining document as written,” Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters. “It’s I think quite carte blanche in terms of geography, types of forces, etc. And therefore, I think we’re going to have to have a lot of work on that.”
Republicans disagreed, saying the measure was not only too limited in its authority but also limited in its conception of what will be required to beat the Islamic State, and it therefore signaled a lack of commitment by Mr. Obama.
“If the president wants to engage in a halfhearted P.R. effort, to go through the motions to give the appearance that we’re fighting when we’re not doing what is necessary to win,” said Representative Mo Brooks, Republican of Alabama, “then we should not engage.”
Source: New York Times
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