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The use of force: old political fault lines but a new context for US policy

March 10, 2015

Originally published in Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia

On February 24th, Islamic State fighters abducted more than a hundred Assyrian Christians from a town in northeastern Syria, the latest in a spade of increasingly bold attacks by the extremist group, whose reach has moved beyond that country and Iraq to also include parts of Libya. The growing threat posed by ISIS – not only to the region but to those nations, including in the West, which have seen their young citizens join the militants and fear they will return home having been further radicalized – is ricocheting in Washington, where officials in the White House and Congress are weighing a more assertive approach than they have considered thus far.

The debate in the US unsurprisingly pits the usual factions of American politics against one another – the Obama administration versus the GOP-controlled House and Senate, hawks versus doves, liberal Democrats versus conservative Republicans versus libertarians in both parties. For the time being, the political battle revolves around the legal form that an expanded military campaign against ISIS should take. But underlying the constitutional discussion is another, no less important, strategic one, which points to a gradual shift in US foreign policy thinking. “This ongoing debate is a proxy for the larger conversation we should have in terms of how we go about terrorism over the next ten years,” says Charles “Cully” Stimson, Senior Legal Fellow at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. Driven by the economic recovery at home, and a mounting awareness that the extremist threat is not about to go away on its own, Americans are showing a new, if cautious, willingness to reengage with the world after years of isolationist inclinations.

President Barack Obama took the first step in this new political and legislative dance at the beginning of February when he sent a draft authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) to Congress. The resolution would give the green light “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as the President determines to be necessary and appropriate against ISIL or associated persons or forces.” It is a far-reaching document, which does not set any specific limitations to what the White House could do in terms of number of troops deployed and of countries they might be deployed to. It does, however, exclude “the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations,” and contains a so-called “sunset clause,” whereby the authorization would expire after three years if not explicitly renewed.

The draft AUMF landed in Congress to a mixed reception. “Many Republicans regard it as too narrow while a number of Democrats would want to place more limits on it,” says Stephen Schlesinger, a Foreign Policy Fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank headquartered in New York. “There is absolutely no language that the administration could have used that would have made everybody in Congress happy,” adds Stimson of the Heritage Foundation. “But the President tried to do a few things with it: he wanted to convey to the left the idea that he is no George W. Bush and that he says no to open-ended conflicts, while also giving in to the right’s call to take on ISIS more aggressively”.

Because it is both a legal and political document, this newest AUMF proposal comes with another puzzling element. If passed, it would automatically retire its 2002 predecessor, which gave Congress’s blessing to the US war in Iraq, while keeping in place the 2001 AUMF, which sanctioned the “War on Terror”, or the fight against Al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and “associated forces”. The Obama Administration has claimed the 2001 legislation already gives it the power to go after ISIS too. This raises an obvious question: if that earlier text already covers ongoing and future operations against extremist groups, what is the need for a new AUMF?

“I think it is necessary because the prior resolution is almost 14 years old and might be too tenuous at this point,” says Schlesinger. “It would be better to have a document more tailored to ISIS.” Maybe, then, the 2015 AUMF draft should be viewed as a gesture of goodwill toward Congress on the part of the administration. At the same time, the survival of the 2001 resolution suggests that a realpolitik-type consensus is emerging within the White House that the likes of Al-Qaeda and Al-Nusrah Front or, for that matter, Boko Haram, will not be said and done for in three-years time and, therefore, it might be worth keeping all options on the table. Finally, one must not forget that the 2016 presidential election is already looming large on Washington. The administration’s proposed AUMF compels  Democrats and Republicans of all stripes to take the stand, one way or another, with regard to ISIS. “Those in Congress don’t want to accept any request from the White House without first picking it apart,” says Schlesinger. “They want to make sure they look like they are actively participating in devising this new resolution.”

This all means that there is no clear timeline for a definitive deliberation on the part of Congress and that, whatever version of AUMF is approved, if any at all, it will probably look somewhat different than the one drafted by the White House. According to Stimson, Congressional Republicans and Democrats are likely to use the hearings that will be held on the issue to pull more information out of the administration, on its overall strategic thinking with regards to ISIS, Syria, Iraq and Libya, and to extort some concessions, such as additional defense spending.

The outcome of the debate in Washington also depends on what happens on the ground, as the fighting continues to intensify along the porous border between Iraq and Syria. Due to ISIS’s infamous videotaped decapitations, 57% of Americans already support sending ground troops to Syria and Iraq, in stark contrast to even just a few months ago, when US public opinion was entirely preoccupied with the economy and weary of any new overseas adventures. At the time of writing, much trumpeted but still vague plans for a large ground offensive to retake the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, are being drawn with the US’s help.

In this context, the debate over the latest AUMF should be viewed as an opening salvo for what are likely to be long and complex negotiations over the involvement of US troops. So we shouldn’t expect the administration to take any radical steps for the time being. “The resolution might give the White House more wiggle room in terms of deploying Special Forces,” says Schlesinger. “But overall I don’t think Obama is willing to commit ground troops on a wholesale basis like Bush did, and even Republicans are by and large opposed to boots on the ground today.” According to The Century Foundation Fellow, Washington’s strategy continues to be about building up the Iraqi army and the Kurdish forces, and brining in American Special Forces as needed, as part of a campaign to counter ISIS propaganda and gradually reclaim the territory it has seized in the past months. “Experts say the moment you start rolling back ISIS, this breaks the myth of the group’s inevitability, immediately reducing its appeal, particularly among young people from other countries,” says Schlesinger.

The situation in Syria, where a separate civil war is raging between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and a patchwork of opposition groups that include a number of Al-Qaeda affiliated organizations and where the US has few precious allies to work with, is even more difficult to read. It is no surprise that the White House policy with regard to this country and its manifold conflicts is somewhat fuzzy. Even in this case, however, one can sense a small but significant shift in that Americans have pretty much stopped calling for Assad to leave. “The administration is finally wising up to the fact that Obama made a mistake asking that Assad would step down, clearly that is not going to happen no matter what we do,” says Schlesinger. “So they might as well see if they can make him part of the solution.”

Though the situation on the ground remains murky and, as a consequence, so do the policies emanating from Washington, one thing is clear: ISIS has scuttled the US’s plans. President Obama, who had hoped to use his time in office to end his country’s military involvement in the Middle East and to focus his efforts elsewhere, has now more or less stopped talking about a “pivot to Asia” and is preparing to slowly re-escalate the presence of the American armed forces in the region. Suddenly he might even have the backing of the American electorate, who has spent the last six years worrying about its own pockets but, with the US economy now churning again, has began looking beyond the country’s borders and is not liking what it sees. And with that, the 2016 presidential election might be the first to be dominated by foreign policy in quite some time.

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