Sen. Chris Murphy speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate about ISIL.
Sen. Chris Murphy speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate about ISIL.
Sen. Chris Murphy speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate about ISIL.

Washington – Sen. Chris Murphy has escalated his criticisms of President Obama’s campaign against the Islamic State by introducing legislation that would curb the White House’s war-making powers.

Co-sponsored with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., Murphy’s bill would terminate in three years authority given by Congress to the White House right after the 9/11 attacks to take military action against Al Qaeda and its allies.

Last week, Obama asked Congress for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF. But the president maintains the 2001 AUMF authorizes his campaign against ISIL, even as he wants Congress to back those efforts. The request for new war powers is viewed as an attempt to make Congress a partner in his efforts.

However, Murphy and other Democrats say the 2001 AUMF does not give the president unlimited powers. They say a new AUMF is needed to expand U.S. military action against ISIS or move into Syria and other nations.

“It just doesn’t make sense for us to keep looking for ways we can use a 13-year-old bill for the authority to go after terrorist groups that didn’t even exist when the bill was passed,” Murphy said. “Having learned from both our successes and failures over the past decade, Congress can wipe the slate clean by sunsetting the 2001 military authorization and using the intervening time to debate whether or not we need a new authorization to continue hunting down terrorists who threaten the United States.”

Besides terminating the 2001 AUMF in three years, Murphy’s legislation includes a statement that Congress did not intend to authorize a “perpetual war;” and language that says the “associated forces” cited in the 2001 AUMF that the Bush and Obama administrations have relied on to carry out various military missions may not address threats from groups unaffiliated with the 9/11 attacks.

Jim Twombly, a professor of American politics and the presidency, at New York’s Elmira College, disagrees with Democrats like Murphy who say Obama may be exceeding his authority.

He said the president’s latest military actions are likely to be covered under the 2001 AUMF, his position as commander-in-chief and a Vietnam War-era war powers law that allows the president to commit armed forces to military action for as long as 90 days without an AUMF or declaration of war.

Twombly, however, said Obama is shrewd to ask Congress for a new AUMF because “this is what President Obama needed to cover himself politically.”

Obama sent to Congress last week a draft bill that would authorize the war on ISIS for three years. The AUMF draft does not include geographic limits on the conflict and would allow troops to operate on the ground for limited periods of time almost anywhere in the world.

Congress reacted in a partisan fashion to the president’s request, with Republicans saying it did not go far enough in giving the White House the authority it needed and Democrats wanting to narrow that authority, especially when it came to the ground troops.

“They are all over the place,” Twombly said of the congressional lawmakers. “Republicans and Democrats are both serving fractured constituencies.”

Flat worms and war

Few on the Democratic side of the political spectrum have been as critical of Obama’s plans as Murphy.

“I simply can’t rely on President Obama’s promise that he won’t use ground troops against ISIL because he’s only got two more years left,” Murphy said in a speech on the Senate floor last week.

In that speech, Murphy compared ISIL to a flatworm that multiplies as you chop it up.

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“We cannot authorize a strategy that could result in American combat troops going back to the Middle East,” Murphy said. “Now if this president or the next president put our soldiers into the Middle East to fight ISIL…an intervention of this scale would ultimately create more terrorists than it destroyed.”

Murphy’s war powers legislation isn’t likely to be approved in a Congress controlled by Republicans. But it may have some impact anyway, Twombly said.

He said Murphy, as well as the president’s critics on the right, are staking out their positions in advance of congressional negotiations over a new AUMF.

Obama may have underestimated the divisions in Congress over the war, said Richard Haass, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Be careful what you ask for: new authorization for military force could expose lack of consensus, place limits on what U.S. can do vs. terror,” Haass said in a tweet.

For Murphy, however, the war powers debate may be an asset, said Gary Rose, head of the political science department at Sacred Heart University.

“This is how he got elected, opposing the Iraq War,” Rose said of Murphy’s first campaign for Congress, a 2006 race for the 5th District congressional seat. “This is politically advantageous to him. It keeps him in good stead with a good number of constituents in his district.”

“The president is putting a lot into this and this is an affront to the president,” Rose said. “But Obama is not known for being vindictive.”

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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