Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey all appeared on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to testify in defense of the president’s new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) request to combat ISIL. The provision needs congressional approval and would expire in three years if authorized. It also has at least two key provisions: First, it would not permit, as Secretary Carter phrased it, a “long term, large scale” American ground force to be deployed overseas to fight ISIL. Second, it would allow the president to prosecute the war “without geographical limitation. This means the president would have wide latitude to go after ISIL terrorists outside Iraq and Syria.
As a result, Secretary Kerry urged members of Congress to authorize the AUMF as soon as possible.
“ISIL’s momentum has been diminished,” he began his testimony. “But to ensure its defeat, we have to persist until we prevail. The president already has statutory authority to act against ISIL. But a clear and formal expression of this Congress’s backing, at this moment of time, would dispel doubt that might exist anywhere that Americans are united in this effort.”
He also argued that the controversial second provision, as outlined above, is both prudent and necessary.
“The proposal includes no geographical limitation...what a mistake it would be to send a message to [ISIL] that there are safe havens," he said. "We can’t afford that."
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, for his part, also agreed the AUMF deserves congressional approval immediately.
“In reviewing the president’s proposed AUMF as secretary of defense, I asked myself two questions,” he said. “First, does it provide the necessary authority and flexibility to wage our campaign, allowing for a full range of military scenarios? And second, will it send a message to the people I’m responsible for…that the country is behind them?”
“I believe the AUMF does both, and I urge Congress to pass it,” he added.
Some lawmakers, however, expressed concern with the text of the AUMF request. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), for instance, wondered why, if the administration believes that it already has the “statutory authority” under the 2001 AUMF to fight ISIS, a new proposal is even necessary.
Sen. Rand Paul also found the new AUMF puzzling.
“It’s disdainful to say ‘we want you all to pass something, but it doesn’t really matter because we’ll just use [the 2001 AUMF],’” he said. “It means Congress is inconsequential.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) was also concerned about the ambiguous language of the proposal. After all, he said, one provision gives the president authority to not only wage war against ISIS, but its “associated persons or forces” as well. Does this mean, he wondered, that the president can unilaterally wage war against, say, Boko Haram -- or other terrorist groups -- that ally themselves with ISIL?
“This is really focused on ISIL,” Secretary Carter clarified. “[But this provision] can be interpreted, but has not yet been interpreted, to cover other groups like Boko Haram.”
Naturally, Sen. Paul found this statement less-than-reassuring.
“If [the 2001 AUMF] can be applied to Boko Haram, I’m very concerned about voting for this, as it is worded,” he emphasized. “Because if we’re going to go to war in Libya, I want to vote for war in Libya. If we’re going to war in Nigeria, I want to vote for war in Nigeria.”
In other words, AUMFs should be tailored to certain countries or entities, he argued, not left up to presidential discretion.
Finally, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) had questions about the term “enduring” in the following provision: “The authority granted [to the president] in subsection (a) does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.”
What does that term mean, he asked, and what regions of the world does it apply?
“It’s an important principle that the AUMF [does not] enumerate everything that we may find it necessary to do,” Secretary Carter responded. “Instead, the text sets an outer limit. [T]hat’s a good and sensible thing for a military campaign.”
Sen. Paul, however, again took issue with the vagueness of Carter's answer. According to this interpretation, he argued, the language of the text “could mean anything.”
“Under this resolution, I believe you could have unlimited numbers of troops in Iraq,” he said as a hypothetical example. “I believe you could have unlimited numbers of troops in Libya and in Nigeria. And now there are 30 nations that have pledged allegiance to ISIS.”
“So words are important,” he intoned. “People worry about the danger of being too confining; we’re not anywhere close to that.”
In the end, these were only some of the concerns raised in Wednesday's hearing. But it was striking that senators from both political parties had serious concerns about the language of the president's proposal.
It therefore remains to be seen if a bipartisan majority can come together and approve the measure. At this early stage, it does not seem likely.