President Obama’s first initiated war against an Islamic terrorist group is authorized, the White House says, by George W. Bush-signed legislation that Mr. Obama has criticized and wanted to repeal since last year.
Since beginning airstrikes last month against the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, the White House has said it does not need congressional approval to carry out such missions.
Last week, on the 13th anniversary of al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States, the administration announced why, saying President Bush’s Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution in 2001 is all the authority Mr. Obama needs.
In a May 2013 speech to a military audience at the National Defense University, Mr. Obama portrayed the law as dated and as a potential blank check to get the U.S. into wars.
“The AUMF is now nearly 12 years old,” he said. “Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.”
Last week, The Washington Times asked a National Security Council spokeswoman whether the president still wants to repeal the authorization, given the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group.
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“On the 2001 AUMF, we remain committed to engaging with Congress and the American people to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF,” the spokeswoman said. “The president has made clear that he wishes to take America off a permanent war footing.”
Two days later, the White House cited the authorization as Mr. Obama’s go-ahead for airstrikes on the Islamic State.
Said Charles “Cully” Stimson, a national security law analyst at the Heritage Foundation: “There’s not only a disconnect but a failure to clearly articulate in a public forum the legal basis for the strikes.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest defended the irony of the president’s reliance on a war authorization law that he has wanted to be changed and repealed since at least 2013.
Mr. Earnest did not repeat the call for repeal Thursday as he explained to reporters why the 2001 resolution applies to the Islamic State.
“The president is ready to engage in a conversation with members of Congress as it relates to this specific AUMF,” he said. “And we welcome or would welcome a show of support from the United States Congress for the strategy that the president has laid out.”
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Mr. Obama went on national TV Wednesday night to announce a counterterrorism campaign to destroy the Islamic State over time. The U.S. will provide airstrikes, intelligence, training and advice. Iraqis and Syrians will muster their ground forces.
Mr. Obama campaigned for re-election as a president who was put into office to “end wars, not start them.”
The Obama administration has not given a name to the military operation, a departure from past Pentagon practices.
Congressional aides said that, by relying on a law tied to the Bush administration, Mr. Obama avoids signing new legislation that would officially and historically link him to the war against the Islamic State.
Mr. Stimson believes the constitutional lawyer in Mr. Obama “would prefer to work with Congress for a narrowly tailored ISIS-specific AUMF that has a ‘sunset’ provision within it.”
“But the political reality is that if he were to ask for one and not get it, that would be politically damaging,” the national security analyst said. “If he were to ask for one and get it, then he would be the author, the owner, of an Obama AUMF, which probably, according to their political calculus, would hurt them even more.”
The 2001 law authorizes military force against al Qaeda and its associated groups. The Obama administration argues that the Bush authorization applies to the Islamic State group, a version of al Qaeda in Iraq, which waged war against U.S. troops and the Baghdad government beginning in 2004.
“It is the view of this administration that the 2001 AUMF continues to apply to ISIL,” Mr. Earnest said.
Although al Qaeda and the Islamic State have had public disagreements over how and whom to kill, and in what numbers, some al Qaeda fighters view the offshoot as the one created in Osama bin Laden’s image.
“So these ties between ISIL and al Qaeda persist,” Mr. Earnest said.
As for Mr. Obama’s call to repeal the authorization he now embraces, Mr. Earnest said the president has always said, “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue.”
In August, the White House justified its bombing campaign in Iraq as the prerogative of the commander in chief. It also has sent at least seven notifications to Congress about actions against the Islamic State to comply with the 1973 War Powers Act.
Mr. Stimson said the letters “are a direct reflection of the administration’s public stated position that these are more like counterterrorism operations and not war, like against Taliban and al Qaeda and associates. I think that’s a tough one to swallow for some people.”
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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