On March 22, 2017, the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee held a hearing on the Defense Budget and Readiness to address readiness issues currently facing the military right now, including sequestration.
However, Sen. Tom Udall (D-Colo.) asked an interesting question that the rest of Congress needs to hear. The Senator asked Secretary of Defense James Mattis “Are you concerned that Congress has not approved an [authorization to use military force] AUMF specific to Syria, granting the President the legal power to invade Syria?”
At issue are the current ongoing air strikes in targets in Syria, and now the presence of 500 special forces, Marines and other ground troops largely centered on the current offensive in Raqqa, which Islamic State controls.
Secretary Mattis responded, “I think we have to play the ball where it lies right now” and “I would take no issue with the Congress stepping forward with an AUMF. I think it would be a statement of the American people’s resolve if they did so.”
Mattis further expressed confusion as to why Congress had not already acted given the threat. Mattis added, “I have not understood why Congress hasn’t come forward with this, at least a debate because it is a clear and present danger we face” against Islamic State.
On Sept. 14, 2001 Congress passed the authorization to use force. That authorization granted the President the ability to use all force against terrorist organizations that participated in Sept. 11, 2001 attack, and nations harboring said organizations.
Since that day, the AUMF has been used to target terrorists around the globe. President Bush attacked terrorist organizations in Pakistan, and Afghanistan. President Obama expanded the actions to Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Syria.
A separate authorization was granted in 2002 in Iraq.
President Obama asked Congress for two authorizations for Syria, first in 2013 with his “red line” against the Assad regime, and then again in February of 2015. President Obama wanted congressional authority to attack ISIS in Syria. The measure failed, due to some Republicans believing the measure did not go far enough in the fight against ISIS and others believing the measure was useless without a coherent Syrian policy. President Obama went ahead with the air strikes and then ground forces, relying on the 2001 AUMF to provide the legal foundation.
During the Presidential campaign, President Trump promised to wipe the Islamic State from the face of the Earth. President Trump has had to invoke the same AUMF Presidents Bush and Obama used to carry out the attacks against terrorist.
While the current administration believes the old authorization suffices, Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford both agreed it is time to update the 2001.
Mattis was correct, the debate about authorizing force needs to happen. Currently, three resolutions have been introduced dealing with terrorist groups including Islamic State. It is advisable the relevant committees take up resolutions and answer much needed questions.
Will the new authorization limit the actions to Syria or include Libya? Will it include groups that claim allegiance to Islamic State, like Boko Haram or al Shabaab?
It is time Congress regain its rightful place at the foreign policy table, asserting its Article I powers. It is the job of Congress to declare war. It is the job of Congress to fund war. And it is the job of Congress to restore the rule of law.