For seven months, the United States has been engaged in military action — war, to put it plainly — against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Yet it's not clear that Congress will provide explicit authorization for airstrikes and the commitment of uniformed advisors.
President Obama in February asked Congress to approve an Authorization for Use of Military Force against the fanatical and bloodthirsty group that has scored significant military victories, and the administration insists that a new authorization is a priority. But it's hedging its bets by continuing to insist that it already possesses legal authority to wage war under action taken by Congress in 2001 that authorized the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan and 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.
Moreover, the administration seems to regard a new resolution as primarily symbolic. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said approval of the administration's proposed language would “dispel doubt that might exist anywhere that Americans are united in this effort.”
True, but that's not the principal reason for Congress to act. A new AUMF is necessary primarily because it's legally and politically wrong for the administration to rely on congressional enactments more than a decade old that arose from vastly different circumstances.
Unfortunately, those resolutions may continue to provide the only legal scaffolding for this war because Congress can't agree on a new one. Some Republicans think Obama's proposal, which would expire after three years and prohibit “enduring offensive ground combat operations,” is too timid. But Democrats also have problems with the president's language, including the fact that it would authorize military force against Islamic State not just in Iraq and Syria but anywhere else.
It's ironic that some Republican senators who tried to insinuate themselves in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program — clearly the province of the president — are apparently willing to give the president a pass and not assert their much clearer constitutional responsibility to authorize war against Islamic State.
As for the Democrats who worry about giving Obama too much latitude in a new resolution, they too will be complicit if the president continues to wage war as he likes by citing the flimsy authority of the post-9/11 AUMF, which authorized the use of force against those who “planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.”
Democrats and Republicans in Congress must resolve their differences with each other — and with the White House — and do their duty.