This means war: Obama asks Congress to authorize military force against Islamic State

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The U.S. has carried out airstrikes against the Islamic State extremist group for the past six months, but on Wednesday President Obama finally asked Congress to make the conflict official.


Obama sent Congress a draft authorization for use of military force (AUMF) against Islamic State forces, who have violently conquered large swaths of Iraq and Syria and executed several hostages from the U.S. and allied countries.

If left unchecked, the group "will pose a threat beyond the Middle East, including to the United States homeland," Obama wrote in a letter to lawmakers.


What's does the authorization do?

The U.S. first launched airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria last summer without congressional approval. The administration claimed it had the legal authority to attack ISIS under the 2001 authorization of force against al-Qaeda.

In the following months, however, Obama and Congress engaged in a game of chicken over who should go first in crafting a bill providing formal permission to continue the fight.

The proposal Obama gave to Congress today lasts three years, meaning the next president will have to grapple with renewing the authorization. Administration officials have acknowledged that defeating the Islamic State is a long-term challenge.


Obama did not include any geographic limitations for where U.S. forces could pursue Islamic State fighters or any "associated persons or forces" fighting alongside or in support of the group.

The proposal does prevent U.S. forces from engaging in "enduring offensive ground combat operations." The role of ground troops has been one of the biggest sticking points for Democrats and Republicans in Congress, and Obama decided to offer a compromise.


Obama said U.S. forces should not be involved with expansive ground operations on the scale of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Local forces "should be deployed to conduct such operations," the president wrote in his letter to Congress.

The proposal provides "flexibility to conduct ground combat operations in other, more limited circumstances, such as rescue operations involving U.S. or coalition personnel or the use of special operations forces to take military action against ISIL leadership," Obama wrote.


Obama's plan repeals the 2002 war authorization for Iraq but it keeps the 2001 authorization for al-Qaeda and Afghanistan, although the president wrote he hopes to ultimately repeal that language, too.

Why it matters

Obama campaigned on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in both places, the U.S.'s previous combat operations have concluded. But his decision to launch a new military campaign against the Islamic State will also be a part of his legacy.


The president's plan faces an uphill battle in Congress. Democrats have expressed concern that it could lead to another protracted ground war in the Middle East, while Republicans say it places too many limits on U.S. forces' ability to fight Islamic State militants.

"If we are going to defeat this enemy, we need a comprehensive military strategy and a robust authorization, not one that limits our options," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement Wednesday.


Democrats are worried the language pertaining to ground troops is too vague. Here is Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the foreign relations committee:


Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.

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