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President Trump addresses a joint session of Congress, February 28, 2017 (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Trump Doesn't Need Authorization to Fight ISIS, But Get One Anyway

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs

President Trump doesn’t need authorization from Congress to finish his annihilation campaign against the Islamic State and other Islamist militants, but it would be wise to work with Congress to get it.

Trump administration officials have hit the Hill, meeting with members of Congress over the subject of a new Congressional Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF). There has been a bi-partisan push to update the approval from Congress, since the last two authorizations were passed in response to the attacks on the United States on September 11th, and authorized military force in Afghanistan and Iraq. President George Bush didn’t technically require those, either, but his hand was greatly strengthened because he had them.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution reserves for Congress the power to declare war. But declaring war is a specific thing with a meaning far narrower than the military campaigns to dismantle terrorist organizations that span multiple countries. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution recognizes the president as commander in chief of the armed forces. This applied to President Obama when he was commander in chief and it applies to President Trump.

President Obama had the authority to initiate military responses to protect the national security of the United States without needing authorization from Congress, and so does President Trump. Even the 2001 AUMF, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support after the 9/11 attacks, acknowledged: “The President has authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States.” That covers what the United States is currently doing against ISIS and other Islamist militants.

Still, the authorization was passed more than a dozen years ago, and it’s a stretch to argue this is the same military campaign President Bush had in mind when he sought the authorization. It would be prudent to clearly articulate what it is the United States is seeking to do in the current war against Islamist militantism. Additionally, military campaigns are always more successful when there’s evident, strong political support for them.

Moreover, Washington could also always use the reminder that the president (and federal government, generally) works for the American people and not the other way around; so, while the people have entrusted to the president the commander in chief role as he carries out his responsibility to provide for the common defense, President Trump should make the case to the American people by way of a formal address, and reminders via other mediums (perhaps even Twitter if the president so chooses) of the threats of Islamist militantism, the reason the United States must eradicate it and then explain where military operations will take place to eradicate the enemy.

After having made his case to the people (and their congressional representatives) the Congress is almost certainly going to authorize a new AUMF. The White House can always gauge support for this with the cooperation of Republican leadership by whipping the vote count beforehand, of course.

Passing a new AUMF would strengthen the secretary of Defense’s hand when he asks Congress for specific (and increased) funding levels, when he launches new initiatives to reset the military, and when he makes personnel decisions for the Pentagon that truly make the military the most effective fighting force possible. After all, Congress would have just recognized the need to defeat a foe that threatens the American people and it would be a moral travesty and dereliction of government duty to agree to send American men and women into harm’s way while under-resourced or not optimally prepared.

And, a well-resourced, optimally organized, and prioritized military has the greatest impact on troop morale.

It would also be a political victory for President Trump who promised his supporters he would both eradicate Islamist militants and also reorient U.S. military engagement so that it is more selective and realistic in what it sets out to do. He could point to an AUMF as compelling evidence for returning to the consent of the governed, rather than doing whatever the President wants, regardless of the express will and wishes of the American people.

In sum, a new AUMF would be good for the military campaign against ISIS, good for troop morale, good for the president, and most importantly, good for the country.

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