In the debate over the proposed new Authorization for the Use of Military Force, some have suggested that the President is asking to have his arms tied. In fact the move is cleverer. He is asking Congress to authorize what he has already done and therefore apparently thinks he can do anyway, and asking with enough modifiers—what is an “enduring” ground operation? who will decide how long it “endures”?—to vitiate any congressional limitations on his power.
A year has now passed since President Obama pledged, in an address at the National Defense University, to “engag[e] Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate.” It has been neither refined nor repealed, and neither Congress nor the American people—I’ve checked my messages—has been engaged on the topic.
President Obama said in his Veterans Day remarks at Arlington National Cemetery Monday that when responsibility for security in Afghanistan is transferred next year, America’s “longest war” will come to a close. But America’s longest war, the ongoing war on terror, was authorized by a Congressional resolution—the Authorization for Use of Military Force—whose alteration or repeal he endorsed six months ago but that will almost certainly endure. The promised “engagement” with Congress about its repeal has not occurred because a variety of actions and policies in the war on terrorism, from drone attacks to detention, depend on the AUMF remaining in force. The longest war persists for reasons of the longest motive: power.
Yesterday 205 members of the House, defying the partisan polarization that has recently characterized that body, voted for an amendment limiting the NSA’s blanket collection of telephone records. Last week a federal judge appointed to the bench by George W. Bush lit into a government lawyer claiming limitless executive authority to assassinate U.S. citizens in drone attacks. The tide may be turning. But most heads in the war on terror ultimately spring from one hydra, and that hydra lives: a post-9/11 authorization of force through which Congress ceded an enormous and amorphous swath of power to the President to wage war without end on an enemy without definition.