"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."- Benjamin Franklin
On Wednesday, President Obama asked Congress for an official Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to fight the insurgent group in Iraq and Syria known as ISIS (among other names). This authorization (you can read all three pages here) would replace a similar one from 2002 which focused on the impending Iraq war. However, it does not repeal an authorization passed immediately after the events of September 11, 2001 to combat global terrorism (since al-Qaeda is still a thing). It is hard to keep all of these different authorizations straight, so let's just start with the basics of how ISIS rose to power and what this current authorization would entail.
Last summer, militant fighters loosely associated with al-Qaeda began taking over large sections of northern Iraq and Syria, proclaiming the region as the "Islamic State." They rose to power in the sparsely populated and war-ravaged areas of the northern Middle East. Taking advantage of the destabilizing effects of both the Syrian Civil War and the US occupation of Iraq (along with the subsequent ending of this war), these fighters have been ruthless in their conquest of significant portions of the region including key cities such as Mosul in northern Iraq.
Last September, President Obama outlined his plan for providing significant tactical and advisory support to groups fighting ISIS (mainly the Iraqi military and Kurdish Peshmerga forces) along with an intense campaign of airstrikes. So far, the results of this campaign have been debatable. The rapid progress of ISIS through Iraq has been halted and cities such as Kobani have been retaken. However, ISIS remains a strong force in the territories they still hold including Mosul, one of Iraq's largest cities.
Whether successful or not (this is a debate which will be raised in another post), it is very likely this program will continue. In my opinion, this strategy takes a much more realistic stance of helping those who directly fight ISIS (like the Kurds), rather than fighting their battles for them. It is a longer process than invading the country ourselves, but it is refreshing that an administration realizes that there are no quick military fixes when it comes to foreign policy.
The main point of this proposed authorization is the section which allows the President to use whatever limited military means (with some major exceptions) as he deems necessary to fight ISIS and anyone fighting in support of it. This would essentially be a Congressional green light to continue the campaign of airstrikes which have been going on since ISIS became a serious threat last summer. This new resolution, however, would also expand the President's powers to use small Special Forces units or even limited defensive weaponry. Previously, the administration had been using the AUMF from 2001 (which was meant to fight al-Qaeda) to combat ISIS (which has some origins from this group).
However, this authorization has specific limitations. In keeping with Obama's insistence on avoiding another prolonged ground war, the resolution states that, "The authority granted...does not authorize the use of the US Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations." Furthermore, the authorization requires the President to address Congress every six months about the actions taken as a result of this authorization and requires a re-authorization of this resolution after three years. However, fears about this mission expanding beyond the scope of this authorization remain valid.
There are concerns that this would allow him to pursue ISIS fighters anywhere in the world, but the political realities of the region mean that he still couldn't just roll tanks into whatever country he wants. This authorization is mostly symbolic, the administration is already doing what they want to do, they just want to make it more legitimate in the eyes of the law (international law notwithstanding). It provides a more firm legal footing for the President's actions while clearly defining what is (and what is not) part of the administration's ISIS strategy. Regarding the even greater question of whether or not the U.S. should intervene in the first place, that is a debate for another post.
Fortunately, Obama seems firmly committed to not getting involved in a land war in Asia (the greatest classical blunder I hear). At least this authorization has an expiration date of three years (unless further extended) unlike the 9-11 war powers authorization, and is most tailored to the current situation rather than an open-ended war on a vague enemy (Terror?). Still, its significance should not be downplayed. This is as close to a formal declaration of war as Congress is likely to get (since we stopped doing that after WWII).
In all, there appears to be little in here about Americans giving up personal liberty, so this development will likely be less controversial than the Patriot Act has become. Though it appears there will be somewhat of a debate on this authorization, it is highly likely this new resolution will pass. War powers authorizations and pseudo-declarations of war should never be taken lightly. We should all think very carefully about the implications of granting the power to make war before we immediately rally-around-the-flag and support it. Obama has long mentioned a desire to repeal the 2001 AUMF, but it (along with the Patriot Act) remains a critical part of the administration's anti-terrorism policy. Perhaps in the fear which gripped the nation after 9-11, we allowed ourselves to become a little too eager to rubber stamp any concessions on liberty in exchange for security. In the new normal of this emerging century, it seems that whenever one enemy is defeated, two more spring up to take its place.
TL;DR: President Obama asks Congress to give stronger legal backing to the fight against ISIS and will probably get it.