Obama’s blueprint for war: Heads or tails, he wins

     President Barack Obama speaks to the media during a meeting with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, in Washington. The President spoke about issues including immigration and ISIS. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo)

    President Barack Obama speaks to the media during a meeting with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, in Washington. The President spoke about issues including immigration and ISIS. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo)

    If you’ve figured out what President Obama’s war-on-ISIL blueprint is really about, what it allows and what it restricts, then congratulations. Because all I can do is muster my best guess.

    I’ve pondered his proposed “Authorization for Use of Military Force against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” from every angle, and parsed the loophole language. I wish I could just strip it down for comic relief – like when the Marx Brothers goofed on legalisms by decimating this contract – but hey, this is about war. Or, more precisely, this is about war without end.

    This is also an elaborate chess game, rigged in its way to ensure that Obama wins. If Congress ultimately votes to OK this new AUMF, then Obama wins, because the AUMF, at least as currently written, allows this president (and his successor) to do whatever he (or she) wants virtually anywhere in the world. But if Congress ultimately rejects this new AUMF, then Obama wins anyway – because the existing AUMF that was passed right after 9/11 seemingly gives this president (and his successor) the authority to do whatever virtually anywhere.

    Or something like that.

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    Obama knows darn well that his war blueprint, sent to Capitol Hill last week, could be a very tough sell. On this issue, Congress is even more fractious than usual. You’ve got the liberal Democrats and the libertarian Republicans in one camp, claiming that Obama is going too far, that he’s using fancy legal language to lay the groundwork for endless war. But in the other camp, hawkish Republicans, along with some hawkish Democrats, claim that Obama isn’t going far enough.

    Most Republicans generally complain that Obama abuses his powers – yet here they are, apparently bent on giving Obama more power. Go figure.

    Actually, if a Republican president had pitched this AUMF, most congressional Republicans would be pleased, because it’s very muscular about presidential war prerogatives. Section 2 says that the authorization for military action shall target “ISIL, or associated persons or forces.” Section 5 defines “associated persons or forces” as “individuals and organizations fighting for, or on behalf of, or alongsde ISIL, or any closely-related successory entity.”

    You could drive a fleet of Hummers through those loopholes. The president would be authorized to target any individual anywhere who identifies with ISIL (fighting “on behalf of”). As Obama frankly remarked the other day, the AUMF language would provide “the flexibility we need for unforeseen circumstances.”

    Nevertheless, hawks are concerned about this AUMF passage: “The authority granted…does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.” Some Republicans have translated that to mean, “No boots on the ground,” and they say Obama is wrong to rule it out.

    But come on. Look how squirrely the language is. Obama hasn’t ruled it out.

    Note that he’s only ruling out “offensive” ground combat. But if he wants to dispatch ground troops against ISIL – or any loosely defined associated persons – he need only frame their mission as “defensive.” After all, any war initiative can be framed as “defending the homeland.” Heck, for the past 65 years, our federal war agency has been called the “Defense” Department.

    Also, that key AUMF passage rules out “enduring” ground combat – without ever defining the word. If troops are dispatched (for defensive reasons, of course), and the fighting lasts for six days, is that span of time less than enduring? Would six weeks be less than enduring? What about six months or two years? Let’s try to get some clarity by quoting the letter that Obama sent to Congress:

    “My administration’s draft AUMF would not authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operations….The authorization I propose would provide the flexibility to conduct ground combat operations in other, more limited circumstances, such as rescue operations….(and)…situations where ground combat operations are not expected or intended…”

    Non-enduring apparently means short-term and small-scale, but, again, the key word is “flexibility.” And even though this AUMF is hard-wired to expire three years after Congress supposedly says yes, Obama is bequeathing all this flex to the next president.

    And even if Congress ultimately votes no – Republicans may well refuse to take partial responsibility for this war, withholding their fingerprints just in case it goes badly – Obama won’t care. Because he also said in his letter to Congress that “existing statutes provide me with the authority I need to take these actions” against ISIL. He’s referring to the ’01 AUMF that authorized President Bush to take action against anyone tied to Al Qaeda in the wake of 9/11 – even though ISIL didn’t even exist on 9/11. He has been bombing ISIL on the basis of the ’01 AUMF for the past six months – without going to Congress for anything.

    Got all that?

    Maybe Obama is acting as any president would in this circumstance, crafting loose language in response to a unique security threat. Or maybe he needs to be reined in with a more limited AUMF. Or maybe, as some Republicans suggest, he should be further unleashed. All we know for certain is that America will usher in the next war president in 2016, with his or her prerogatives intact.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.


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