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Will History Repeat Itself?

Photo: The White House/Flickr

Hindsight is 20-20, but President Obama doesn’t seem to be taking full advantage of that view.

When the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) was approved just a week after the 9/11 terrorist attack, no one could have predicted that it would embroil the United States in almost a decade and a half of war in countries beyond Afghanistan. That law became the basis for drone strikes and military operations in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia, among others.

Obama is now attempting to implement another AUMF, this time to fight ISIS. Last week, he asked Congress to formally authorize military force against the terrorist group that has taken over large portions of Iraq and Syria.

But as much as President Obama is trying to avoid history repeating itself, the question nonetheless remains: will it?  His proposed AUMF illustrates his effort — offering limitations that were absent from the 2001 AUMF —  but will they be enough to actually ensure that the United States doesn’t end up in various countries fighting a number of enemies?

Put another way, what makes President Obama’s proposed AUMF substantially different from the one passed in 2001?

For one, the proposed AUMF actually named the group against whom military force would be authorized. This may seem like a common-sense inclusion, but the 2001 AUMF lacked any specific mention of Al Qaeda — or any other terrorist group — and simply said the President could use force “against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.”

But the proposed AUMF would allow military operations only against ISIS “or associated persons or forces.”  While the resolution attempts to impose limits by defining those “associated persons or forces” as “individuals and organizations fighting for on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely-related successor entity,” this language still leaves a great deal of room for a broad interpretation of who these people are or might be in the future.  As ISIS grows, so does its influence, and many terrorist and extremist groups across the region are pledging allegiance to ISIS.  In the past six months, ISIS has drawn into its fold some dozen militant groups from Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan. According to the proposed AUMF, whatever sphere of influence ISIS develops next would become a potential battleground for the United States.

Perhaps for this reason, Obama also made it clear that his proposed resolution does not call for ground troops to be deployed to either Iraq or Syria. In a letter submitted to Congress, Obama wrote that his administration’s draft AUMF “would not authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operations like those […] in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  But, under the proposed resolution, battling ISIS and its associated persons could include ground combat operations, as long as they’re not “enduring.” Obama admitted this obliquely in his letter to Congress, when he wrote that the resolution would “provide the flexibility to conduct ground combat operations in other, more limited circumstances,” using missions by special operations forces as an example.

The draft resolution also puts time limits on the President’s authority to conduct military operations against ISIS. After three years, the President would have to seek reauthorization from Congress to continue. While this is a limitation on its face, the new resolution doesn’t actually guarantee that military force against ISIS will end in three years — even if the proposed AUMF is not reauthorized. That’s right, and here we’ve come full circle — the 2001 AUMF is still in place, permitting President Obama, or any future President, to follow its broader mandate.

It’s that AUMF that the Obama administration has used to justify airstrikes being carried out now in Iraq and Syria. Despite Obama’s stated commitment to “refin[ing], and ultimately repeal[ing]” the 2001 AUMF, all this new proposal does is replace the 2002 AUMF that gave President George W. Bush the authority to begin the Iraq War.  In fact, this most recent request broadens the scope to include Syria, thus expanding the original mandate, in the aggregate. Fourteen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the list of authorized targets in the war on terror seems to only grow larger.


Peter Bergen is a journalist, documentary producer, vice president at New America, CNN national security analyst, professor of practice at Arizona State University, and the author or editor of seven books, three of which were New York Times bestsellers and four of which were named among the best non-fiction books of the year by The Washington Post.

Emily Schneider was a senior program associate for the International Security Program at New America.