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Obama's Request for Authorization Stalls, But War in Iraq and Syria Marches On

White House pleads for Congress to grant war-making powers, as bombs continue to fall on Syria and Iraq

Sarah Lazare

The Obama administration appears to be growing increasingly frustrated as its request for congressional authorization for its war in Iraq and Syria stalls on Capitol Hill amid continued criticism from foreign policy experts and grassroots activists.

However, the political roadblocks appear to be having little impact on the war itself, which is stretching into its eighth month, including at least 15 airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition on Tuesday and Wednesday alone.

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Wednesday, White House officials pleaded for rapid approval of the controversial Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in the war on ISIS, which would approve geographically limitless war, broadly define the "enemy," permit deployments of ground combat troops, and leave the widely-opposed 2001 AUMF intact.

The proposal appears to be floundering, with hawks charging its powers are not extensive enough and some Democratic lawmakers calling for greater limits. Meanwhile, grassroots groups are pressing for rejection of the war altogether, charging there is no U.S. military solution to the humanitarian crisis gripping Iraq, Syria, and beyond.

Senior Obama administration officials, for their part, signaled concern with the lack of political backing.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter urged Congress on Wednesday to rapidly approve the AUMF, claiming that ISIS "already shows signs of metastasizing outside of Syria and Iraq." His comments come amid reports that the U.S. strategy in the ISIS war is failing on its own terms.

Secretary of State John Kerry, further, urged Congress to show that it backs the war with a "single, powerful voice."

In making their case, these senior officials revealed, when it comes to the proposal's murky terms, they advocate for expansive interpretation.

For example, the proposed text authorizes military force against ISIS "or associated persons or forces." Analysts have warned that this definition of the enemy is overly vague and broad, and combined with the absence of geographic or time constraints, would sanction a nearly limitless war.
Responding to a question from Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Carter said the new authorization "could apply" to use of force in places like Libya, far beyond the borders of Syria or Iraq, where some groups have reportedly claimed affiliation or allegiance to ISIS.
"You do see in this social media-fueled movement called ISIL," said Carter, "people who are wannabes or want to join or have been associated with al-Qaeda or some other group who are putting up the flag of ISIL. And we need to recognize that that’s a characteristic of the campaign and that’s why the AUMF has the language that it does."
During the hearing, Carter stated that he "cannot assure" that the war will be over before the expiration of the AUMF's three-year sunset. "The president's proposed authorization affords the American people the chance to assess our progress in three years' time, and provides the next president and the next Congress the opportunity to reauthorize it, if they find it necessary," Carter said.
In addition, Kerry reiterated that the new AUMF is not meant to limit war-making powers of the 2001 AUMF, which has been invoked by the Bush and Obama administrations to authorize the ongoing war in Afghanistan; covert drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; military intervention in countries from Ethiopia to Iraq; and the practice of indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay and Bagram prisons.
Groups have called for a total repeal of the 2001 AUMF, which has been called a "blank check for war," and even Obama has acknowledged the legislation as overly expansive.
Kerry said the Obama administration would "support the inclusion of language in the new AUMF that will clarify that the [ISIL]-specific AUMF rather than the 2001 AUMF is the basis for the use of military force"—as long as this did not limit other war-making authorities of the 2001 legislation. The Obama administration has claimed that authorization for the ongoing ISIS war is covered by the 2001 AUMF—a claim that is contested by international law experts.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said that, despite the White House's attempts to sell the legislation, major disagreements remain, and he does not hold out high hopes for bipartisan backing.

However, it is not clear what ultimate bearing this political stalemate will have on the current military operations.

As Corker told reporters, "The fact that this operation's been going on for a long, long time points to the fact that nothing regarding the AUMF is going to affect what’s happening on the ground at present."

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