Washington Post Writers Group
President Barack Obama should call Congress back to Washington for a special session to vote on authorizing war against the Islamic State. If he does not, Congress should return on its own to conduct this vital debate.
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As legal justification for the war, Obama relies on two measures, passed more than a decade ago, that authorized U.S. military action against al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. To state the blindingly obvious, things have changed.
The Islamic State is not al-Qaeda. While the 2001 authorization for war against Osama bin Laden's terrorist group encompasses "associated forces," al-Qaeda refuses to have anything to do with the Islamic State. And the 2003 authorization for war in Iraq — targeting a government that no longer exists — says not a solitary word about airstrikes in Syria.
Whether Obama has the right to bomb targets in Syria is also questionable under international law, but leave this aside for the moment. The president has made a long-term, open-ended pledge to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State. He promises there will be no U.S. combat troops on the ground but uses the narrowest possible definitions of "combat," "troops" and "ground."
This is a commitment made on behalf of the nation, with no sense of when it might end and no guarantee of success. In an interview broadcast Sunday on 60 Minutes, Obama said he believes "we've got a campaign plan that has a strong chance for success in Iraq" -- provided the Iraqi army puts sectarian differences aside and fights effectively, which hasn't happened thus far. And as iffy as those prospects in Iraq may sound, the president acknowledged that "Syria is a more challenging situation."
Asked whether airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria would inevitably bolster Bashar al-Assad and his bloody regime, Obama replied, "I recognize the contradiction in a contradictory land and a contradictory circumstance."
In other words, two tenets of U.S. policy — Assad must go, the Islamic State must be destroyed — are directly at odds. Obama said the terrorist group is "a more immediate concern that has to be dealt with." But he also said that "we are not going to stabilize Syria under the rule of Assad."
"We" are talking about stabilizing Syria? "We" as in the international coalition Obama has marshaled, none of whose members want to send ground troops? "We" as in the "moderate" Syrian rebels who have been overwhelmed on the battlefield by the Islamic State? "We" as in the United States?
These are the kinds of questions that Congress should be asking in open debate. Article I of the Constitution clearly gives Congress the authority to declare war. I am not being starry-eyed or naive; I realize there has been no formal U.S. declaration of war since 1942. Presidents from Harry Truman through Obama have sent U.S. troops into harm's way by relying on congressional authorizations or U.N. Security Council resolutions. In this case, as I see it, Obama has neither.
Congress is in recess until Nov. 12, after the midterm election. House Speaker John Boehner has said he believes Obama has the right to wage this war under the 2001 and 2003 authorization measures, although he has also said that Congress should take up the issue at some point. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he plans to get to work on a new authorization, one of these days.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and a few other lawmakers have argued forcefully that congressional action is required, but theirs are lonely voices.
Why such passivity and lassitude? Because neither Republicans nor Democrats want to join Obama out on this limb, even if they agree broadly with what he is doing. Some hawks believe ground troops may eventually be needed, but know this is something voters do not want to hear. Some doves want ground troops to be expressly prohibited. It would be difficult for leaders in both chambers to forge consensus.
Obama, like his predecessors, is loath to cede any of the war-making power the presidency has accumulated over the years. And he doubtless recalls that the last time he asked Congress to authorize airstrikes in Syria — as punishment for Assad's use of chemical weapons — lawmakers balked.
Ultimately, though, it is the nation that endures the sacrifices of war, not just the president. No decision is more consequential. Inconvenient though it may be, Obama and Congress should do their duty.
Reach Eugene Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.