During his State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress “to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL [Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant].” The White House has claimed repeatedly that such an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) is not legally required because the president already has the authority to conduct operations “against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces” as provided in the 2001 AUMF. Given that the United States began bombing Iraq on August 8, it is clear that Congress tacitly accepts this interpretation and is in no hurry to pass an updated authorization for ISIL, just as they have never made serious efforts to reform the 2001 AUMF.
Nevertheless, the White House officials demand a “right-sized, modernized AUMF,” not because it is in anyway required, but because they believe “it would send a powerful signal to the citizens of this country, the citizens of our allies, and to our enemies.” It is unclear why ISIL would care about the passing of such a transparently pointless resolution in the U.S. Congress. Moreover, the notion that the United States can send signals to friends and enemies, which are then heard and accurately interpreted in the manner that U.S. officials want, is highly dubious.
Bearing those concerns in mind, it was troubling to read portions of a new interview with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. First, Dempsey endorsed the passage of a new authorization bill but made clear that it should be a blank check for which the military can do whatever it wants: “I think in the crafting of the AUMF, all options should be on the table, and then we can debate whether we want to use them. But the authorization should be there."
Second, America’s most senior uniformed military official makes clear that this blank check should permit military operations anywhere on the face of the earth: "It shouldn’t constrain activities geographically, because ISIL knows no boundaries [and] doesn’t recognize any boundaries—in fact it’s their intention to erase all boundaries to their benefit.”
Finally, Dempsey contends that the blank check, geographically-unconstrained AUMF should last forever: "Constraints on time, or a ’sunset clause,’ I just don’t think it’s necessary. I think the nation should speak of its intent to confront this radical ideological barbaric group and leave that open until we can deal with it." Earlier this week, Dempsey opined about the fight against Islamic terrorism: "I think this threat is probably a 30-year issue.” As noted, this would make the war on terrorism even longer than the Cold War—1947-1989 vs. 1998-2045.
The Senate and House armed services and foreign affairs committees are planning to hold hearings in the next few months about what an AUMF focused on ISIL would look like. If it resembles the unbounded and infinite Congressional authorization that Gen. Dempsey has outlined, that would indeed send a powerful signal to the world about America’s desire to remain in a state of perpetual warfare.