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June 16, 2015

Growing Pressure in Congress to Debate an ISIL AUMF

By Carolyn Tackett

Congress may finally debate an authorization on the use of military force (AUMF) against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), thanks to growing pressure in both houses.

President Obama started bombing ISIL back in August 2014 and submitted an AUMF proposal in February. Both houses have failed to take up the issue.

But now Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) have introduced an ISIL AUMF to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) as an amendment to the State Department reauthorization bill. The senators said they hope the proposal can show their colleagues a bipartisan agreement is within reach.

The committee scheduled a debate for the Kaine-Flake amendment, but Senator Kaine withdrew it after SFRC Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) agreed to hold a separate meeting dedicated to reaching bipartisan compromise on an ISIL AUMF. Kaine and Flake expect the debate to happen before the August recess.

The Kaine-Flake ISIL AUMF would sunset after three years unless Congress voted to reauthorize it. It would also repeal the 2002 AUMF, which authorized the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Unlike President Obama’s ISIL AUMF, Kaine and Flake’s proposal specifies that it is the sole source of authority for current military activities against ISIL. This is an important clarification. The administration has relied on the 2001 AUMF for military strikes against ISIL, even though that law authorizes the use of force only against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and ISIL is currently fighting against Al Qaeda.

The Kaine-Flake ISIL AUMF does not, however, include a sunset for the 2001 AUMF. Closing out this old authorization—and crafting a new one as necessary—is critical to upholding America’s basic democratic principles and eliminating what has become a blank-check authorization for war.

The absence of congressional oversight and lack of transparency under the 2001 AUMF contributed to policies that have eroded human rights protections and the rule of law. The continued existence of the 2001 AUMF adds to the perception that the United States is engaged in an endless and boundless “Global War on Terror,” damaging the country’s ability to protect human rights domestically and abroad. 

The House of Representatives has also seen a flurry of activity attempting to force a debate on the AUMF. 

The House Appropriations Committee passed an amendment to the 2016 defense appropriations bill from Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) stating, “Congress has a constitutional duty to debate and determine whether or not to authorize the use of military force” against ISIL.

Representative Lee also introduced a concurrent resolution with Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) that would require President Obama to bring home all troops deployed in Iraq and Syria other than those “required to protect United States diplomatic facilities and personnel” within 30 days, or no later than the end of this year if the president decides withdrawal is unsafe.

The House Rules Committee is set to review the resolution this afternoon, and it could be on the House floor for debate as early as tomorrow.

Representative McGovern said the resolution’s purpose is to force House leadership to debate a new ISIL AUMF.

“If we’re going to continue to spend billions on war, and we’re going to continue to tell our armed forces that we expect them to fight and die in these wars, then it seems to me the least we could do is stand up and vote to authorize these wars, or we should end them,” McGovern said. “We owe that to the American people. We owe that to our troops and their families. And we owe that to the oath of office that each of us took to uphold the Constitution of the United States.”

McGovern, Lee, and Jones’ resolution has the right goal in mind: a new, narrowly tailored AUMF that is consistent with international law and human rights norms and addresses the specific needs of the conflict against ISIL. Any new authorization should also include a sunset provision for the 2001 AUMF and repeal the 2002 AUMF.

Congress has a duty to engage in a meaningful debate about when, where, and how the United States exercises military force. That duty includes implementing sunset provisions to guarantee that debate is continued as time passes and conditions change. Party leadership on both sides of the aisle should take a cue from these bipartisan efforts and move forward on achieving an ISIL AUMF agreement.