September 12, 2014

Obama ISIS Strategy Speech: Good, Bad, and Ugly

On the eve of the remembrance of the September 11, 2001, attacks, President Obama described to the nation his plan to address the threat of the Islamist terrorist group ISIS. This group emerged as a direct consequence of the president’s decision to withdraw from Iraq and, as the Washington Post said on Wednesday, his “failure to come to grips” with the Syrian conflict.

Good: A proper framing of the threat and a stated objective to destroy it

There were commendable elements of the president’s speech. First, he described the barbarism of the group and its interest in attacking America. This is a critical step in describing the enemy the United States confronts.

He went on to say that if ISIS is not confronted now, it “could pose a growing threat ... to the United States.” This stems, in part, from the fact that Americans and Europeans have traveled to the region to train and fight with ISIS. “Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks,” the president added. This was a warning to the American people and a call for their support.

The president then said what the United States will do about this: destroy the group, rather than manage the threat it poses.

To accomplish this objective, President Obama said U.S. military action against the group will not be geographically limited to Iraq; it could extend to Syria. This recognized the reality his top military advisors have described, which is that ISIS cannot be defeated without addressing that part of it residing in Syria. This also explained to the American people the scope of action to be undertaken.

Bad: Taking options off the table

The president specifically took options off the table in combatting the ISIS threat. He said he will not use U.S. ground combat troops to fight an enemy that has announced a desire to attack the U.S. homeland. In contrast, President Obama has said in other national security circumstances that all options are on the table. It does not seem beneficial to remove an option for dealing with the ISIS threat, or otherwise tell the enemy what will not be done in confronting them.

Combatting such a significant threat calls for the potential use of all elements of national power. Drawing a false distinction between combat troops on the ground and combat troops in the air does not seem helpful in explaining to the American people all the risks of this operation. The president’s speech was significantly about expanding the deployment of boots in the air against ISIS. This is generally attended by an expanded presence on the ground. In this case, the president committed an additional 475 service members to Iraq to supplement the more than 1,000 already there. As the president admitted, “any time we take military action, there are risks involved.”

As the president said, ground combat troops for now should come from allies and regional partners, but removing an option from the U.S. arsenal may signal to ISIS a lack of seriousness of purpose and resolve. It further eliminates an enormous element of the U.S. arsenal that ISIS should prepare to face. It certainly undermines the president’s credibility when he claims, in other contexts, that all options are on the table.

Ugly: An unsupported claim of authority

President Obama said that although he has “the authority to address the threat from [ISIS],” he would “welcome congressional support for this effort.” He did not describe in his speech the source of that authority, but on background to the media, his advisers said military airstrikes are authorized by the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. President Obama has said in the past he wants that statute to be repealed. This is akin to the president saying he wants to stop the intelligence community’s telephone metadata collection program, while continuing to reauthorize the program until Congress acts. Even more distressingly, there has yet to be an explanation of how the 2001 AUMF authorizes increased activity against ISIS. That proposition goes beyond any interpretation of the statute so far.

President Obama said last May that the war against terrorist organizations, “like all wars, must end,” and thus the 2001 AUMF should be repealed. Terrorist organizations, however, generally get a say on such matters, as ISIS is demonstrating. Simply saying that history demands that a war should end generally does not compel the enemy to lay down its arms.

The president went on to say in May that he would not “sign laws designed to expand [the mandate of the 2001 AUMF] further.” Apparently, instead of seeking congressional authorization to deal with this situation against ISIS, he will simply expand the mandate of the 2001 AUMF on his own accord beyond all bounds its interpretation can logically bear.

The 2001 AUMF authorizes the president to use force against those organizations he determined planned or aided the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in order to prevent future acts of terrorism against the United States by such organizations. The Department of Defense general counsel testified to Congress in May that this authorizes the use of force against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and “associated forces.”

It is difficult to see how ISIS is an associated force of al Qaeda, and thus covered by the 2001 AUMF. The Obama State Department earlier this year, in its annual counterterrorism report, found that ISIS was expelled from the al Qaeda network in February, and ISIS has publicly “disassociated” itself from al Qaeda. Moreover, for these same reasons, it would also be difficult to claim ISIS is al Qaeda itself, especially since there remains a group called al Qaeda, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who ISIS has clearly rebuffed.

This abuse of the 2001 AUMF has significant consequences. Under section five of the War Powers Act, if the president introduces the U.S. military into hostilities, he may generally keep them there beyond 60 days only if Congress somehow acts to authorize such a use of military force. It is clear President Obama is claiming the authority to act against ISIS under the 2001 AUMF so he can avoid the requirement to seek congressional authorization under the War Powers Act. As one administration official admitted, the 2001 AUMF serves as the congressional authorization for these operations against ISIS, and thus the president “has the authority to continue these operations beyond 60 days.”1

The Department of Defense general counsel said in his testimony in May that it is not the case that the concept of an associated force “is open-ended or otherwise provides the administration with unlimited flexibility to define the scope of the AUMF. A group that simply embraces al Qaeda’s ideology is not an ‘associated force,’ nor is every group or individual that commits terrorist acts.” It seems President Obama is treating the AUMF as exactly that – an open-ended authorization with unlimited flexibility.

Senators should be open to receiving an administration explanation of how ISIS is covered by the 2001 AUMF. A statement as to the president’s authority under the Constitution as commander-in-chief would seem to be a much more defensible position. This is notably the position the president has relied upon thus far to support more than 150 airstrikes in Iraq.

More importantly, the representatives of the American people should express a position on the decision to deploy U.S. service members to a zone of combat for a sustained period of time against such a capable enemy. President Obama should more forcefully request formal congressional support for the actions he will take against ISIS. Majority Leader Reid should schedule a vote on that vehicle – be it legislation or a resolution – prior to the Senate’s adjournment this month.


1This is not the first time President Obama has made a mockery of the War Powers Act regime. In Libya in 2011, he said that engaging in war-like activities to bring about regime change and the overthrow of Qadaffi did not amount to “hostilities,” and thus that use of force unauthorized by Congress was not covered by the War Powers Act limitations.

Issue Tag: National Security