A lowly Army captain is pressing an issue that members of Congress should have forced long ago. Without the specific authorization of Congress, President Barack Obama is committing battlefield troops and weaponry to fight wars on two fronts in Iraq and Syria.
Troops are dying, albeit in very small numbers compared with casualties of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars of the past decade. The difference now is that these wars are undeclared, the current enemy’s name — the Islamic State — appears in no previous war resolution, and there is no clear path to victory.
Capt. Nathan Michael Smith, an intelligence officer serving in Kuwait, demands clarity on behalf of those who might be called to fight. All Americans should demand nothing less. Smith says in his lawsuit that the War Powers Resolution, passed by Congress in 1973, requires the president to obtain the consent of Congress before committing U.S. armed forces in an armed conflict lasting more than 60 days.
The resolution resulted from the commitment made by successive U.S. administrations to a Vietnam War that Congress never formally acceded to. More than 500,000 American troops were deployed at its height. More than 58,000 U.S. service members were killed and 300,000 wounded.
The wars in Syria and Iraq are highly unlikely to reach that level of U.S. involvement, but the principle is worth pressing. Islamic State is an enemy well worth fighting, given the atrocities committed by its murderous zealots against Americans, Europeans, Asians and, of course, thousands of Iraqis and Syrians.
But just like the 2003-2011 Iraq war, there’s no clear definition of victory or path outlined for vanquishing this foe. The risk is high that another “Black Hawk Down” scenario could develop in which a risky mission goes awry, large numbers of U.S. troops are killed, trapped or captured, and the only way to resolve the situation is to commit more and more troops. This is exactly the fight that Islamic State commanders are trying to provoke.
The Obama administration argues that Congress has implicitly authorized this fight, first by approving the military funding, and second by authorizing the president in 2001 to go to war against al-Qaida. The Islamic State was formed by a rogue al-Qaida member, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was deemed so radical that not even Osama bin Laden would tolerate him. But the Obama administration says the Islamic State is rooted in al-Qaida, therefore the 2001 authorization stands. That’s a reach.
Capt. Smith is absolutely correct to force this issue, and the White House should back him. Far too many members of Congress have used these wars as a platform to criticize the administration without ever having to take a stand on how they believe it should be fought. Congress needs to take a stand.
The above editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.