Members of a fractious Congress apparently have reached bipartisan consensus on one key issue: They won’t risk even debating a broad measure to authorize President Barack Obama’s military campaign against the Islamic State until after the Nov. 4 election.
Sorry. Gotta go campaign. War vote has to wait.
Bulletin to Congress: This war isn’t waiting for you. Islamic State militants are busy rolling up real estate in Iraq and Syria and beheading innocent Westerners. They’re on the march — well-financed, impressively equipped and battle-ready. American airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq have helped slow the momentum, but these jihadists won’t melt into the desert. The White House says a serious, sustained campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy Islamic State forces could last several years.
That’s an extensive, and expensive, goal. And where is Congress?
Well, on Wednesday, the U.S. House voted to approve a small part of that mission: Obama’s request to train and arm Syrian rebels to fight the jihadists. The Senate followed suit on this relatively small-bore initiative Thursday.
But the overarching, much thornier debate about the president’s war powers and battlefront strategy likely won’t happen until after voters go to the polls.
This being a risk-averse bunch, it’s easy to see why many members of Congress are scared of a vote that would allow Obama wide latitude to pursue this war. No one wants to be on the record, before an election, on a vote that could quickly boomerang (think errant bombs and dead schoolchildren). What many Americans would see as Senate and House members doing their jobs, the Senate and House members see as political damage just waiting to happen.
Congressional leaders of both parties may be putting off a vote until later because they know they can’t win it. Some anti-war Democrats oppose another open-ended U.S. commitment to a Middle East war. They blanched when Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday that this war could someday require U.S. combat boots on the ground. (Dempsey’s commander in chief belittled that notion Wednesday.)
Across the aisle, some Republicans don’t trust Obama’s ability — or his resolve — to pursue a complex military campaign after staking his political legacy on getting America out of wars.
The White House argues that Obama doesn’t need additional congressional approval to fight Islamic State jihadists. Yet the president also has said he would welcome congressional “buy-in” for his yearslong strategy.
In other words, many members of Congress don’t want to vote. And Obama isn’t demanding that they do so. Why not?
The White House would take a huge risk by urging congressional action, as President George W. Bush did in the 2002 run-up to war in Iraq: This Congress might reject a broad resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria and Iraq. Then what?
On Wednesday, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., introduced a proposal that would authorize Obama to use military force against Islamic State — with tight restrictions on the deployment of American troops on the ground. Under Kaine’s bill, the president’s authority to use force against Islamic State would expire in a year but presumably could be extended. “If Congress isn’t willing to do the hard work — to debate and vote on an authorization — we should not be asking our service members to go into harm’s way,” Kaine said.
That’s exactly right. If members of Congress are willing to watch young Americans fight, those lawmakers ought to accept the much less dangerous job of debating and voting.
On Aug. 24, after the beheading of American journalist James Foley, we urged Congress to cut short its vacation and engage in this debate. Nearly a month has dribbled away and now comes another congressional break while American pilots fly combat missions.
But not voting also creates risks. Secretary of State John Kerry has drummed up some support in Arab and European capitals for a campaign against Islamic State. Any such commitments could easily evaporate, though, if those nations detect that Obama isn’t serious — or that Congress isn’t fully committed to his war.
If Congress wants to limit Obama’s powers to act — or even go on record opposed to this war — the time is now, not later. “The White House has said to us, ‘We encourage a new authorization of force,’ ” U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., tells us. “So why not now? … Half the world is on fire. No matter how you feel about the president … he should have a clear understanding of what his authority is.”
Instead, members of Congress buy themselves time — to see how things go on the battlefield, to consult their political pollsters, to read editorial pages — before, heaven forbid, they cast an actual vote.
Profiles in courage?
Nah. Profiles in wimpiness.