The AUMF Was Always a Political Disaster
The incentive to officially declare war against ISIS was never really there.
John McCain, the chairman of the Senate's Armed Services Committee, is not even pretending that Congress will pass an Authorization to Use Military Force against ISIS.
"Obviously, it is not going anywhere," McCain says of the president's three-year plan that was sent to Capitol Hill in February. "The proposal was not enough for those on the left and way too much for those of us who believe that the Constitution says the president is the Commander-in-Chief."
Just one week after the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee passed a bipartisan compromise to give Congress the authority to vote on any Iran nuclear deal brokered between Iranian leaders and the White House, reporters are beginning to ask again whether Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker can harness his goodwill with Democrats to negotiate another deal: the politically precarious AUMF.
When the White House submitted its request for military force more than two months ago, the feeling presented by senators and members of Congress was that negotiating an AUMF would be an uphill climb, but it was the kind of political risk—one so fundamental to to their oath of office—worth taking.
Now the resolution is languishing in committee, with Democrats opposed to language they say gives the president too much leeway and Republicans claiming the AUMF is too restrictive.
"You cannot even get it out of the foreign relations committee, so I don't know how we are going to unfortunately pass it, even though it is an important issue for the country," Sen. Kelly Ayotte said.
When asked about a potential compromise to get an AUMF through, McCain interrupted, "there are none."
Why all the gloom? The AUMF was doomed from the start. The reality is, there never was much political incentive for anyone in Washington to work together to pass a war resolution.
Even the White House's initial request for congressional approval to bomb ISIS was half-hearted. The president had been claiming for months that the 2001 AUMF against al-Qaeda gave him all the authority he needed to strike ISIS, therefore making a new one not legally necessary.
For the White House, asking an often-dysfunctional Congress for anything is a precarious task. Asking a divided body to come together on a war strategy is even more of a Hail Mary. Still, the president tried to carefully thread the needle. The White House's proposal was carefully worded and intentionally vague to give both Republicans and Democrats cover to support a plan to "degrade and defeat ISIL."
But Democrats had even less reason to go along with Obama's proposal. Democrats continue to be dubious of attaching their names to any document that could put the country on track for another meandering conflict in the Middle East.
"Lessons from the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs are on everyone's minds as we are trying to craft one to cover the mission against ISIL," Sen. Tim Kaine said.
For Republicans, accepting an AUMF from the White House at the outset of a big election cycle could put presidential contenders in an impossible position. Voting for the president's plan could make it hard for senators such as Cruz, Paul, or Rubio to distance themselves from Obama's foreign policy—or worse, his former secretary of State and the likely Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. Voting against an AUMF, however, could make them look unserious about defending the country and defeating a deadly group.
Republicans always politically safer to reject or ignore the president's proposal from the beginning so they had a chance to run against the White House's ISIS strategy later.
In the Senate, meanwhile, it's harder to find members publicly admitting that they are ready to concede defeat on the AUMF debate.
"It's not dead on foreign relations and foreign relations is the committee of origin on this," Kaine said. "Anybody who says we don't need to do an authorization, it's like telling the troops 'we don't care. You can risk your lives. We are not going to do our job.'"
Sen. Ben Cardin, ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he and Corker have not settled on where to move next on the committee.
"We have not had that conversation," Cardin said. "I will certainly be talking to Sen. Corker about the AUMF ... I know some of our members are trying to see if they can find an agreement on it."
Corker told Defense News that he needed to be assured that he would have both Democratic and Republican support before bringing an AUMF forward. And even if the senator managed to wrangle together enough support to push an AUMF through, he says it would hardly impact the White House's ongoing strategy.
"Everyone knows that regardless of what we do on AUMF, it's not going to change anything whatsoever on the ground," Corker told Defense News. "I try to deal with things that try to generate an outcome."