Whee! 44's hang up 'bout getting all hooked up with another Authorization To Use Military Force (or AUMF) is yet another example of 44's goofy Unseriousness about Nat'l Defense...
First, and most glaring, the authorization will have only a three-year lifespan, after which Congress would have to pass a new law to resurrect the war. No important declaration of war or authorization to use force has ever had such a sunset, because no armed conflict will ever obey an arbitrary deadline. Even the Framers, removed by centuries from our modern battlefield with its non-state enemies and asymmetric tactics, understood this. Alexander Hamilton argued against critics of the Constitution who wanted to impose similar limits on the government’s war powers (such as forcing armies to disband every year): Because the “circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite,” he wrote in Federalist 23, “no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power.”
Constitution’s Framers understood that war was so unpredictable that it could not be dictated by rules beforehand. But this is exactly the course on which the White House’s Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) would set the nation. It makes little sense to announce to your enemies in advance when you will stop fighting.
A three-year deadline will have the same harmful effects that 44’s arbitrary withdrawal dates in Iraq and Afghanistan did. Groups and nations opposed to the United States, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and Iran in the Middle East, will simply wait us out. Or they may employ destructive delaying tactics in the hopes that war-weariness will lead a small minority in Congress to block a reauthorization in 2018. Try to imagine that, on December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had asked Congress for a declaration of war that would last only three years. It is impossible, because FDR took war seriously and understood that our enemies fight not according to our plans, but according to their own.
In addition to the three-year deadline, the White House proposes that Congress prohibit the use of force “in enduring offensive ground combat operations.” This bizarre restriction has never appeared before in any declaration of war or authorization for combat operations, nor does the proposal define it. Does it prohibit the deployment of large bodies of troops, such as a whole brigade or division (which, we have informed ISIS, will be there no longer than three years)? Does it restrict the use of heavy armaments, such as M-1 Abrams tanks? Does it bar the construction of bases and military infrastructure?
Whatever it might mean, the ban on “enduring offensive ground combat operations” further violates the Hamiltonian principle against arbitrary limits on war. Suppose American commanders identify a rare opportunity to topple ISIS and bring order to Iraq and Syria, but only by deploying American ground troops ready for full combat. According to the White House proposal, the president should not have the ability to take advantage of these tactical and strategic opportunities, because they involve ground troops.
44 makes a third grievous mistake by calling for repeal of the 2002 AUMF, which approved the war in Iraq, and, in a separate letter, promising to seek repeal of the 2001 law authorizing force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Both of these laws approve the operations that 44 has already launched against al-Qaeda and ISIS around the world. The 2002 AUMF is particularly important because it permits the use of force against ISIS even if it is unconnected to al-Qaeda.
Even without a new AUMF, the president has constitutional authority as commander-in-chief, supported by congressional funding, to wage the conflict. Even if one had the view, as Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) does, that Congress had to pre-approve all wars, the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs provide sufficient legal authority to attack ISIS and any other hostile groups in Iraq. If Congress wants to send a clearer signal of American unity and resolve, it should reverse the recent blind, automatic cuts to defense spending and bring the military’s capabilities up to the demands of America’s global responsibilities. Congress would not only save 44 from his own policies, it would also preserve the powers of the presidency for times — like this one — when the nation needs them most.