President Obama said Wednesday that he will ask Congress for new authority to combat the Islamic State, replacing the administration’s reliance on laws passed more than a decade ago to justify its current military operations against the militants in Syria and Iraq.
“The idea is to right-size and update whatever authorization Congress provides to suit the current fight rather than previous fights,” the president said at a White House news conference.
“We now have a different type of enemy; the strategy is different,” Obama said. “It makes sense for us to make sure that the authorization . . . reflects what we perceive to be not just our strategy over the next two or three months, but our strategy going forward.”
Obama pledged nearly 18 months ago to work with lawmakers to “refine and ultimately repeal” what he said were the outdated 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, against al-Qaeda and the 2002 authority against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Since then, White House engagement with Congress on the issue has been minimal.
But the battle against terrorism took a new and unexpected turn this summer with the rapid expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. As it scrambled for legal justification for airstrikes against the militants, the administration turned to the 2001 and 2002 laws.
At his news conference, Obama said he had invited Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III to the White House on Friday to speak to congressional leaders “about how our fight against ISIL is proceeding, to answer questions, and to assure that Congress is fully briefed on what we’re doing there.” ISIL is one of several acronyms used to refer to the Islamic State.
“It’ll be a process of listening to members of Congress, as well as us presenting what we think needs to be the set of authorities” for the ongoing operation, Obama said. “It may just be a process of us getting it started now. It may carry over into the next Congress.”
But lawmakers who have pushed for a new AUMF urged the president to move sooner rather than later.
While saying he welcomed Obama’s remarks, Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) said that “we have two months left in the current Congress to get important work done.”
In September, a week after Obama authorized airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, Kaine introduced legislation for an AUMF against the group. The measure is limited to one year and prohibits the use of U.S. ground troops against militants in Iraq and Syria. It also provides a narrow definition of the groups that could be targeted under its authority.
Even before the current campaign against the Islamic State, the administration used the al-Qaeda authorization, passed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to expand drone and other air attacks in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, adopting an elastic definition of “al-Qaeda-
associated forces” covered under the law.
Although al-Qaeda has repudiated the Islamic State and the two groups have no current connection, the administration has said the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs are appropriate legal justification because the Islamic State has its origin in an al-Qaeda affiliate formed in Iraq a decade ago.
Kaine’s measure and other proposals are under discussion in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Wednesday that “we will work at once with the president to draft a tailored AUMF. . . . It is incumbent that Congress take the lead in authorizing the use of force.”
Beginning in September, Menendez said, “I made clear my view that a new AUMF would be necessary, and believe that any prolonged military campaign requires a new congressionally approved AUMF.” He said his committee would hold hearings beginning next week “on the ongoing U.S. military engagement in Iraq and Syria.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who has proposed new AUMF legislation in the House, met with White House counsel W. Neil Eggleston early last month on the issue. On Wednesday, Schiff called on Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to schedule a debate and vote on a new authorization during the lame-duck session of the current Congress.
Schiff’s proposed bill provided for an 18-month authorization for continued airstrikes and limited special operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“Whether it, or some other form of authorization, is ultimately taken up,” Schiff said in a letter to Boehner, “the most important thing is for us to do our duty to American people and the Constitution.”
Asked whether the United States was “winning” in the battle against the Islamic State, Obama said that “it’s too early to say.” He recalled that, “as I said at the outset of the ISIL campaign, this is going to be a long-term plan.”
He reiterated that the U.S. focus in Syria is “not to solve the entire Syria situation,” in which fractious, U.S.-backed rebel forces are fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and an array of militant groups.
“Our first focus . . . is to drive ISIL out of Iraq,” Obama said. “And what we’re doing in Syria is first and foremost in service of reducing ISIL’s capacity to resupply and send troops and then run back over the Syrian border. . . . That is our number one mission.”