ISIS AUMF: Obama and Congress Need to Get It Right

As Congress and the White House prepare to discuss a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) for the fight against ISIS, Jack Goldsmith, Ryan Goodman, and Steve Vladeck came together in the Washington Post to propose “Five principles that should govern any U.S. authorization of force.” They drew from a similar statement from top national security lawyers and a draft AUMF by another group.

President Obama claimed that he had all the authority he needed to bomb ISIS in Iraq and Syria based on the 2001 AUMF that authorized military action against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and those who were behind the 9/11 attacks. But that AUMF is unsuited for ISIS—which isn’t part of Al Qaeda and didn’t exist on 9/11.

As Human Rights First’s Daphne Eviatar wrote in The Hill, “It’s a new war with a new goal: to prevent ISIS from taking over larger swaths of Iraq and Syria. Congress and the American people should be consulted on exactly what part we want our country to play in that.” As that debate gets off the ground, Congress and the White House should craft a narrowly tailored AUMF.

According to Goldsmith and company, such an AUMF would:

  • Specify the enemy. The AUMF should identify which groups the United States is fighting and what its combat goals are.
  • Make international law applicable. This would keep the United States from using the AUMF to justify invading other countries illegally.
  • Increase transparency. Right now Congress and the American people for the most part don’t know who the United States is targeting or where. The AUMF should require the administration to justify its legal rationale for using force to Congress, and whenever possible, the public at large.
  • Sunset all AUMFs. We need an end clause to avoid perpetual war. After two years’ time, Congress, the administration, and the public could debate extending the AUMF for another set amount of time.
  • Repeal old AUMFs. Again, endless war should not be protocol. The 2001 and 2002 AUMFs are obsolete and should be repealed and, if necessary, replaced with the ISIS AUMF with clearly defined objectives and boundaries.

As Goldsmith says, “The president and Congress should be able to agree on at least this much.” How they proceed in reality will decide whether we are trapped into another decades-long war, or whether the United States can use military force in a way that is transparent, principled, and regulated.


Published on November 19, 2014


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