What Rand Paul Gets by Trying to Start a War

By declaring war against the Islamic State, he's also picking a legal battle with the White House.

Heavy smoke rises following an airstrike by the US-led coalition aircraft in Kobani, Syria, during fighting between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group on October 15, 2014. (National Journal)

Sen. Rand Paul is ready to declare war—and not in a figurative sense.

In an interview with The New York Times on Saturday, Paul announced his intention to declare war against the Islamic State terrorist group. His joint resolution would authorize military intervention in Iraq and Syria against ISIS, including ground forces in specific circumstances. It would also limit the authorization of force to a year after it goes into effect, after which Congress would have to reauthorize it.

Policy-wise, and politically, the move serves a dual purpose for Paul: checking President Obama on executive actions, and showing that Paul is not the isolationist his father is. By initiating this action in Congress after Obama has already called for an additional 1,500 troops on the ground in Iraq, Paul is also pushing back against the president's unilateral actions.

"Conservatives are mad at him about immigration. And they're mad about him using executive authority on Obamacare," Paul told The Times. "But this is another example where he doesn't have much respect for Congress, and some conservatives don't quite get that."

And by introducing what would be the first declaration of war to come out of Congress since World War II, Paul is backing up the claim he's been trying to prove over the past six months: that he is a "conservative realist" who is skeptical, but not afraid of intervention.

Paul's communications director, Brian Darling, said the sunset clause in the resolution has been mischaracterized as, "everything ends in a year." Instead, he said, the clause is meant to hold members of Congress to a yearly reauthorization vote on the resolution.

What's murkier, however, is how the action this new resolution calls for differs from the Authorization of Use of Military Force, or AUMFs, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2002. While the original 2001 AUMF was directed specifically at al-Qaida, the Obama administration has been using the 2001 AUMF as legal justification for continued troop deployment against ISIS.

The idea behind Paul's resolution is to essentially replace the 2001 AUMF with a new declaration of war that specifically targets ISIS. Under Paul's resolution, the 2001 AUMF would expire one year after the new resolution is enacted.

"Despite President Obama's claim that the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs grants him the authority to attack ISIS, Senator Paul believes only this Congress should have the ability to grant the authority to the president," a senior Paul aide told National Journal. "We are in the process of concluding the 113th Congress, yet we are continuing to use authorizations written during the 107th Congress. Senator Paul would like to present the president with the authority to target ISIS and do so in a manner detailed and outlined by the Constitution of the United States."

As Olivia Nuzzi reports, this is a significant shift for Paul, compared with his position on ISIS two months ago. In September, Paul told The Daily Beast that he didn't think American troops needed to be on the ground in Iraq.

"I don't think there needs to be any American soldiers over there on the ground," he said at the time. "The people on the ground fighting these battles, going hand to hand with ISIS, need to be their fellow Arabs and those who, I think and hopefully do, represent civilized Islam."

Paul's aides, however, stress that this is not a flip-flop. After all, the resolution specifically does not authorize the use of ground combat forces "except as necessary for the protection or rescue" of U.S. soldiers or citizens; "for limited operations against high value targets"; or "as necessary for advisory and intelligence gathering operations."

Still, a declaration of war coming from the same senator who gained prominence filibustering against drone warfare may ring incongruous to some voters.