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Column: Obama's Last Best AUMF Reform Moment

Jun. 29, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
President Obama Delivers Statement On Situation In
US President Barack Obama discusses the deteriorating situation in Iraq on June 19. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
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“So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s [Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq] mandate.”

— President Barack Obama at National Defense University, May 23, 2013

If success really largely is about timing, it is tough to imagine a better political scenario in which President Barack Obama could achieve his own goal of updating America’s legal framework for fighting violent Islamic groups.

Obama wanted ending the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to be a big part of his legacy. Until a few weeks ago, it looked like he would get his wish.

A violent Sunni group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), is doing everything in its under-appreciated power to derail Obama’s wishes. Obama already has ordered 300 US special operations “advisers” to Iraq. He’s still mulling airstrikes there — and perhaps on ISIL targets inside Syria.

All modern US presidents — and their lawyers — have asserted the executive branch’s constitutional powers to defend the country. And the Obama administration has used the 2001 AUMF to justify its drone strikes and commando raids everywhere from Pakistan to Yemen to Somalia to Libya.

One could draw a straight — more or less — line between those missions and al-Qaida. Some AUMF reform proponents, like Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., say that’s not the case with ISIL.

“Congress passed an [AUMF] immediately after ... the 9/11 attacks to allow action against those who perpetrated the attacks on that day,” Kaine said June 25 on the Senate floor. “ISIL had no connection with the 9/11 attacks. ISIL did not form until 2003.

“ISIL is not al-Qaida, nor is it an associated force,” Kaine said, adding the group “is now an avowed enemy of al-Qaida.”

Kaine pulled no punches, saying “it would be a wholly unprecedented stretch to suggest that the 2001 AUMF would justify action against ISIL in Iraq.”

Not so long ago, Obama appeared aligned with Kaine.

“The AUMF is now nearly 12 years old,” Obama said at the National Defense University. “I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further.”

Yet, almost 13 months later, the commander in chief’s rhetoric suggests he is inclined to launch airstrikes that would set the very precedent he has warned against.

With the prospect of an even more deadlocked Congress next year, Obama has a rare shot to notch a legacy victory and set a legal precedent for which he has advocated — even while possibly restarting a conflict that would undercut that legacy.

Ample numbers of Republicans and Democrats in both chambers support new US strikes in Iraq and in Syria. Obama may not get another political climate as ripe to, using his word, “refine” the 2001 force authorization into one that clearly underpins the fight against both al-Qaida and violent extremist organizations conceived long after September 2001.

Which precedent will the former constitutional law professor choose? ■

John T. Bennett is the senior congressional reporter for Defense News. Email: Twitter:

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