Six months after the United States began dropping bombs on ISIS positions, the White House and Congress are finally getting around to authorizing the ongoing war.
The White House sent a draft war authorization to Capitol Hill on Wednesday, after U.S. and coalition forces had conducted nearly 2,300 airstrikes hitting at least 4,817 targets in Iraq and Syria.
The Pentagon, which is already running military operations in Iraq and Syria, isn’t taking the issue too seriously—and perhaps rightly so. Given the objections raised by lawmakers as soon as the bill was proposed, there are indications that it will be difficult for Congress to come to an eventual consensus.
The war on ISIS is authorized under a 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which gave then-President George W. Bush essentially a blank check to defend the nation against threats of that time—an Iraq potentially armed with weapons of mass destruction and an al Qaeda firmly implanted in Afghanistan.
On the face of it, the AUMF update was prompted by the need to write a law that reflects current world threats and shapes the American military strategy. But for the Department of Defense, which believes it already has the necessary authorization to fight the war, the latest AUMF is merely about showmanship.
As a result, the ongoing congressional debate about the authorization was met with hardly a shrug at the Pentagon on Wednesday.
“We don’t need a new AUMF to do our jobs” because the ongoing AUMF has allowed the United States to conduct its war legally, said one defense official who asked for anonymity to speak more candidly. “The AUMF is frankly more of a political issue than a military one.”
Even on Capitol Hill, there was some acknowledgement that Congress was going through the theater of authorizing the war to make a point rather than to shape military strategy.
“It’s not a complete waste of time…We have the power of war-making,” said a Senate aide who works on the issue. “It is our job to define the president’s authority in this area.”
It’s hard to imagine the process as anything but a farce. A new authorization won’t affect military operations, already long under way; indeed, three service members have already perished in ongoing operations. And politically, the debate forces lawmakers to take a stance on an uncertain war that could take a generation to unfold.
To their credit, some idealistic lawmakers are working strenuously to pass an AUMF on the principle that it is their constitutional duty.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who has been actively pitching ideas for an AUMF, said he felt for the troops, who “have to risk their lives when there isn’t a clear consensus [on how] this is an important mission…we haven’t been able to have that debate, and that’s what’s been so viscerally upsetting to me about this lengthy delay.”
On the day of the war authorization’s proposal, members of Congress from the left and right immediately began tearing into the White House’s draft of the AUMF. The discord is an indication of arduous road to come even for the gesture of authorizing a war that is already being waged.
Lawmakers raised concerns about the vagueness of the text, which prohibited “enduring offensive combat operations.” Did this mean that brief, or defensive, combat operations would be authorized? The text also doesn’t place geographical constraints on the president’s authority. Did this mean operations against ISIS threats in, for example, Libya, might be fair game?
“It’s very ambiguous. None of us know what ‘enduring offensive combat operations’ means,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “What puts this in context for us is how these old authorizations have been interpreted. They’ve been interpreted very broadly. We’re very conscious of wanting to make sure that this new authorization doesn’t take on a life of its own the way the old ones have.”
Republican hawks, on the other hand, criticized the White House-endorsed AUMF for being too restrictive and for not including a strategy that targets Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“You have my permission to destroy ISIL. Call me if you need anything else,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said when asked whether a new AUMF was necessary. Graham was among those frustrated that the AUMF conversation, which he called “nice to have, but not necessary,” didn’t address how the United States would deal with the Syrian regime.
“First rule of medicine is to do no harm. The first rule of politics should be to do no harm. The worst possible thing is to pass an authorization to use military force that gives Assad a pass,” Graham griped. The U.S. mission in Syria depends in part on a train and equip mission in which thousands of Syrian rebels would be recruited to fight ISIS. Not providing them air support, Graham said, was like “sending them to certain death.”
The White House’s AUMF also outlines a three-year American campaign against ISIS. But finding anyone in the military community who thinks that is a realistic timeline in this war is all but impossible.
In September, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that confronting ISIS could take decades.
Defeating ISIS “will require a sustained effort over an extended period of time,” Dempsey told a congressional panel a month after the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign. “It is a generational problem. And we should expect that our enemies will adapt their tactics as we adjust our approach.”
“Y’all may live to see the end of this war,” Graham told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “I won’t.”
More recently, Pentagon officials have estimated that the U.S. involvement would be anywhere from three to five years. And that is under a best-case scenario, which is twofold. To “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS, as the president has said, U.S.-backed or -trained Iraqi and Syrian would need to defeat ISIS militarily, and then governments would emerge in those two countries that could beat back the appeal of ISIS ideology, Pentagon officials have said repeatedly.
“People are asking why it’s not over. It’s going to take a while,” Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters during a briefing January 30. “I don’t pretend to be smart enough to predict exactly how long on the calendar it’s going to take. We’ve said it’s probably going to take three to five years.”