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Trump Admin Accused of Using 'Extremely Broad,' 'Incorrect' Military Force Interpretations in Syria

U.S. Army paratroopers assigned to 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, relieve personnel and resupply ammunition at a tactical assembly area near Al Tarab, Iraq, during the offensive to liberate West Mosul from ISIS on March 18, 2017. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Hull)

WASHINGTON – There is agreement from both parties that Congress should update the Authorization for the Use of Military Force guidelines so that the U.S. is not relying on language from 2001 to defeat ISIS and other modern terror organizations.

But debate on Tuesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee highlighted what has been one of the major hang-ups in addressing the issue: There are wide-ranging views on how much power the executive branch should have in carrying out military action.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) accused the Trump administration of using “extremely broad” and “incorrect” military force interpretations to carry out recent action in Syria. Cicilline noted that he openly criticized the Obama administration’s actions in the region, as well. The congressman and 15 other lawmakers wrote a letter to Trump in March demanding that the president obtain congressional approval to extend the stay of troops in Syria or immediately withdraw.

Without congressional approval, Trump deployed ground troops to Syria earlier that month to fight ISIS under the Operation Inherent Resolve that was launched under President Obama. The lawmakers cited the War Powers Resolution, which requires congressional approval to keep troops in conflict zones when there is no formal declaration of war.

The last AUMFs were signed in 2001 and 2002, authorizing force against 9/11 perpetrators and the Iraq regime, respectively. Critics say that the AUMF has been used as a blank check – by Bush, Obama and Trump – in waging war against terror groups.

Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) in May introduced a resolution that would update the AUMFs by defining three enemies — al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Taliban – and their associated forces. It also carries a five-year sunset, which would require congressional reauthorization of force, and provides guidelines for where fighting can occur outside Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. The directive also requires the White House to provide Congress with a strategy for combating the terror groups.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Air Force veteran who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, said that there should be no limit on the president’s discretion because that’s better than the alternative of having 535 commanders in chief in Congress. He also argued that there should be no time limit on conflicts, as the military will be fighting shape-shifting terror forces for the rest of this generation. He said that the president should have the authority to destroy terrorism in any way he sees fit, and there should not be any stated timeframe because it’s unclear how long it’s going to take.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) asked Kinzinger to yield during his comments, saying that what the Illinois congressman had described is “unlimited power delegated unconstitutionally to the executive.”

“What you’ve just said, if acted on, would be an unprecedented delegation to the executive branch and virtually conceding (Congress’) war powers,” Connolly said.

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) echoed what many lawmakers have been saying on the prospect for updating the AUMF, arguing that it’s not a good strategy to be fighting a modern enemy with wartime guidelines that were laid out more than 15 years ago, especially given the rapid evolution of ISIS and other fledgling terror groups. He said he wonders how out-of-touch the U.S. military will be if the status quo extends for another five to 15 years.

“It’s clear that relying on the 2001 AUMF to fight against terrorism is no longer the best option to protect this country and our men and women in uniform,” Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) said.

Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) called it an abdication of responsibility that Congress has been putting off the AUMF update all this time. The Obama administration last sent an updated AUMF to Congress in 2015, but it wasn’t considered, nor was an alternative floated.

“I would argue we’re not doing our job by not having the courage to engage in what are not easy conversations, but that’s what we ought to do,” Bera said.