Many Democrats feared Obama’s proposal was too broad, and that the lack of geographic limits along with the inclusion, beyond ISIL, of “associated forces” to the bill would write yet another blank check for war.
But the administration pushed back hard: “Our focus, and the focus of this authorization to use military force, is on ISIL,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on the day Obama unveiled his proposal.
This was decidedly not the approach the administration took today in a hearing held by the House Armed Services Committee. Obama’s undersecretary for defense policy, Christine Wormouth, explicitly affirmed to Republican Representative Richard Nugent that the proposed authorization is not limited to ISIL, and could be used all over the globe to fight a broad war against Islamic “extremism” generally.
Nugent began his question by saying he was worried that Obama’s AUMF was “just on ISIS,” and that the bigger problem is “radical extremism in Islam across the globe.” Wormouth’s rather remarkable reply was that the lack of geographic locations in the proposal is “very deliberate,” and meant to “address exactly the kind of concerns you have.” She added that the “associated forces” language was also meant to add “breadth” to “who we go after.”
The full exchange:
REP. NUGENT: We’re worried about strategy. Strategy really needs to be larger than just ISIS. I mean, it really is—and I know the president doesn’t want to go there—but it its radical extremism in Islam across the globe that is affecting us, and our friends across the globe. And so I’m worried with AUMF that it’s just on ISIS—does that really, is that really the strategy? That’s part of the strategy, but is that really where we need to be? Because you see it first-hand, across the globe. And I know that all the combatant commands talk about it, I’m sure.
WORMOUTH: Why don’t I take a crack at this quickly and then have General Austin pile on. The AUMF proposal, as I’m sure you’re aware, doesn’t have a geographic limitation. And that was very deliberate, to address exactly the kinds of concerns that you have. Similarly there is the associated forces, which is designed to give us some breadth and discretion as to who we go after.
(The aforementioned General Austin did not weigh in, as Nugent’s time had just expired.)
Now, it’s been fairly obvious that Obama’s AUMF tried to thread a needle in order to actually pass Congress: on the one hand, it applied some language that least appeared to limit the use of ground troops in any conflict, so as to appeal to war-weary members. The administration also publicly contrasted the ostensible focus on ISIL in this authorization to the overly broad AUMF passed in 2001; Obama specifically highlighted this in his letter to Congress. But the AUMF also was written to simultaneously appeal to hawks, with provisions for “associated forces” and so on.
In that context, when Wormouth highlighted the broadness of the authorization to a congressional hawk, it is perhaps not a surprise. But the bluntness with which she did it underscores the fundamental logical conflict in Obama’s proposal. Either it limits the president’s war power to the current conflict with ISIS, or it doesn’t.
Here a top defense official is saying clearly: it doesn’t.