Now that the president has vowed to seek Congress’s approval even for what he promises will be very limited military action in Syria, an interesting question arises. What will the authorization authorize him to do?
The president will want an expansive resolution, allowing him maximum flexibility to do what he thinks necessary to accomplish what he determines to be the goals of military action. Skeptics on the right and left will push for a narrower authorization, carefully circumscribing his authority to a limited response to the use of chemical weapons by Syria. Some of the issues that may arise relate to the purpose, scope, and duration of the intervention. Will the authorization state the purposes of the intervention (punishment, deterrence, disabling the regime’s ability to use chemical or other forbidden weapons, protecting civilians, etc.) and then try to limit the authorization to those purposes? How much flexibility will the president have to respond to unexpected developments, like a post-bombing retaliation by Syria against its neighbors or retaliation by terrorist groups or nations like Iran? Will the authorization be sunsetted, or will it be temporally open-ended? Will Congress attempt to select the type or magnitude of force that might be used by, for example, limiting it to air strikes rather than to the introduction of ground troops?
As we’ve already seen in the run-up to this proposed intervention in Syria, the specter of the Bush era will hang over the debate. After 9/11 there was some debate over the substance of the eventual Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). The Bush administration wanted maximum executive power, including a specific provision authorizing the president to order military force within the United States itself. While that language was ultimately omitted, the final version of the AUMF opted for breadth: