Wednesday’s vote in the House of Commons to approve British airstrikes in Syria is a reminder that, 10 months after President Barack Obama asked Congress to authorize the use of military force against Islamic State, this country’s elected representatives have yet to weigh in. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to prosecute — and escalate — a major military campaign under the legal authority granted by Congress more than a decade ago in response to dramatically different circumstances.
Britain and the U.S. have different political systems; the prime minister is himself a legislator and lacks the independent authority that the Constitution confers on the president. But although the president is commander in chief, it is Congress that has the constitutional authority to declare war. It’s unconscionable that Congress has not voted up or down on the military campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State that Obama announced in September 2014.
Congress should be embarrassed to have ducked the issue. But the president is not blameless either. When Obama told the nation that the U.S. would take military action against Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq, he asserted that he already had the authority to conduct such operations – though he added vaguely that he welcomed “congressional support.” It wasn’t until February of this year that Obama sent Congress language for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force.
Even then, the urgency of that request has been undermined by the administration’s insistence that the war against Islamic State is justified under two long-ago congressional enactments. One is the 2001 AUMF empowering the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks” on 9/11. The other is a 2002 resolution approving President George W. Bush’s use of force against “the continuing threat posed by Iraq” — the Iraq ruled by Saddam Hussein, that is.
Because Islamic State is an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq, the case can (barely) be made that the 2001 resolution provides a legal basis for the current campaign. The notion that the 2002 resolution is applicable is laughable. (Obama’s proposed AUMF would repeal the 2002 document but not the 2001 authorization, though he has pledged to work with Congress “to refine, and ultimately repeal” that authorization as well.)
This issue may sound procedural or legalistic, but without a new AUMF, the current campaign against Islamic State lacks full political legitimacy. A new authorization is necessary, and it should do more than merely rubber-stamp whatever the president might decide to do in the future. Congress should debate the issue of mission creep and should think hard about whether the policies it authorizes will make a significant difference in the battle against Islamic State. As it debates whether to authorize military force, it should also consider the fight against Islamic State in the context of the future of the Assad regime in Syria. Finally, any AUMF should place limits on the duration and the geographical extent of the U.S. military effort and on the nature of U.S. involvement.
Obama’s proposed AUMF, which would sunset after three years, is not limited to Iraq or Syria and rules out “enduring offensive ground combat operations,” which would seem to permit the more aggressive use of special operations forces he has ordered recently. By contrast, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has said he would press for an AUMF that isn’t limited by “geography, time or means.” Graham has called for 10,000 U.S. forces to be sent to the region to combat Islamic State.
We prefer an authorization that would ratify what the administration is now doing in Iraq and Syria, in concert with allies such as Britain, rather than permitting a large-scale deployment of U.S. combat forces or the expansion of airstrikes or special operations into additional countries. If circumstances change, the president could ask Congress for additional authority. But continued inaction on Capitol Hill is indefensible.
The above editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times.