But some of Obama’s biggest Republican critics are now stepping in to defend the president against naysayers in his own party by using the following argument: They may not love the president’s anti-ISIS strategy, but will swallow his legal defense of it to keep the fight going.
“I basically agree with people that the current AUMF that the president’s justifying his actions under, I would argue it doesn’t apply,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “But it’s being applied, and I’m not going to challenge it because we have to achieve that goal.”
The goal is defeating ISIS. But Republicans and Democrats are largely in disagreement about how to get there.
Many Republicans want an even more assertive fight against Islamic militants, arguing that the United States should put more than just 50 boots on the ground in order to overwhelm the jihadists — a task they believe can’t be done from the air.
“I would authorize use of military force, ground troops in Syria as part of a strategy that would lead to victory over ISIL,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and is running for president in 2016. But in the current environment, he said: “I don’t feel the need” to insist on a new authorization.
Introducing a new AUMF runs the risk of restricting the president’s anti-ISIS offensive even more than Obama is already limiting himself. That’s because while Republicans generally support widening the scope of anti-ISIS activities, Democrats do not, and any measure would need Democratic support to cross the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for approval.
“Congress is pathetic here: the Congress has absolutely no stomach for destroying ISIL,” Graham continued. “Democrats and a few Republicans have absolutely no clue as to the threats we face — they would object to authorizing a ground force that could win.”
Democrats angling for a new AUMF acknowledge that it is unlikely an authorization precluding more boots on the ground would pass a Republican-led Congress. But that shouldn’t prevent Congress from at least trying, they insist.
“I think Congress is punting because it’s difficult,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Congress has a responsibility to debate an AUMF. I accept that the final product may be one that I oppose, but what is more offensive to me is that we’re not even trying to get a product.”
Not all Republicans think introducing a new AUMF, even in a world in which they could get exactly the terms they want, is necessary. There are a few, including the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, that agree with the administration that the 2001 AUMF drafted in response to the Sept. 11 attacks gives the U.S. all the legal right it needs to go after the Islamic State.
“I have been in agreement with the administration that the ’01 AUMF provides the authorities that they need – it’s certainly close, but I agree with them, I think that it does,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). Meddling with a new AUMF that is likely to go nowhere, he added, would only cause complications.
“To enter into a debate when you don’t see a pathway forward…to me does not seem like a prudent action to take,” Corker said, “Especially when, like me, I believe they have the authority anyway.”
Republicans aren’t entirely operating without politics in mind, however. A new president, maybe even a Republican, will be elected in 2017 and may use that undefined legal authority to put up a stronger fight against ISIS.
“Unless we can be very clear on what Congress would want the president to have as parameters, which is the flexibility to take the fight wherever the president thinks is appropriate, then I think we stay with the current” AUMF, said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “And the lawyers can have the discussion about the legality of it.”