Congress and War On ISIS: “Just Bomb the Place and Tell Us About It Later” (Forbes.com) September 22, 2014Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
To be fair, the constitutional questions surrounding U.S. military action against ISIS are not easy. But those wanting Congress to play a larger role in declaring wars, and not simply defer to the Commander in Chief, have a right to be disappointed when Congress, in effect, gave itself a pass and left town early to go home and campaign. As Congressman Jack Kingston (R-GA) frankly admitted: “A lot of people would like to stay on the sideline and say, ‘Just bomb the place and tell us about it later.’ It’s an election year.”
What Congress did was authorize the arming and training of local forces in Syria, passed by both houses with some bipartisan support. What Congress could and should have done was debate the larger question of authorizing U.S. military action against ISIS. But Congress declined to address that larger question, not wanting to take a tough stand just before the November elections. There were hints this would be debated after the elections, but I have my doubts it will happen then either.
Congress can’t have it both ways. It wants to attack—even bringing an unprecedented lawsuit against the President–presidential abuses of power, but when presented with an opportunity to act, it takes a powder. At some point we have to acknowledge that the excessive growth in executive power is not attributable solely to power-seeking presidents, but also to a weak-kneed congress. As Ronald Reagan put it, you wonder what the Ten Commandments might look like if they’d had to go through congress.
The power to make war is one of many big questions for which the Founders built checks and balances into our Constitution. In this case, the power to declare war resides with congress (Article I, Section 8). But the president is the “Commander in Chief” of the military (Article II, Section 2). Most seem to agree that the president has the authority to defend the country from imminent danger of a direct attack, but even the President admits that ISIL has not presented any immediate danger to the homeland. Beyond that, Congress should have to vote to declare war, rather than allow the President to “destroy” ISIS unilaterally, as he proposed to do in his recent speech to the nation. Obama said he “would welcome congressional support” but stopped far short of proposing a resolution seeking it, or feeling he was bound to pursue it.
The White House now claims that the president already has this authority under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed in the aftermath of 9/11. Unfortunately for the White House, this approval extended to nations and organizations that “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the 9/11 attacks. The Islamic State did not exist in 2001 and even Al Qaeda has explicitly denied any relationship with ISIS. It would be unthinkable that any member of Congress who voted for that resolution 13 years ago in the wake of 9/11 considered their vote an authorization of military action against a new and unrelated terrorist organization today.
The President’s unilateral decision to move ahead with military action to destroy ISIS has brought about a remarkable agreement between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans that the Constitution requires Congressional authorization. Senator Rand Paul tweeted, “The Constitution is very clear. The power to declare war resides in Congress.” And Senator Tim Kaine, one of the president’s allies, said, “I disagree with the president’s assertion that he has all necessary legal authority to wage an offensive war against ISIL without Congressional approval.” In July 100 House Democrats and Republicans sent a letter to the White House insisting he come to Congress before taking military action against ISIS, a letter that evidently went in the round file.
It’s time for Congress to put on its big boy-big girl pants and take up a resolution for (or against) the authorization of military force. This is a far more responsible approach than suing the President, or leaving town early to campaign.