When he greeted Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi at the White House last week, President Obama said that the Iraqis and their allies, including the United States, had made "serious progress" in pushing Islamic State out of Iraqi territory. That's true, but the enemy is far from vanquished either in Iraq or in Syria. The most optimistic outlook is for a campaign that will continue well into next year and perhaps beyond.
Yet eight months after Obama promised to "degrade, and ultimately destroy" Islamic State, Congress still has not voted to authorize the current military campaign. Senators who have rushed to enact legislation giving Congress a say over an Iranian nuclear deal that hasn't been finalized have been content to allow the war against Islamic State to proceed without specific congressional authorization or limits on its expansion beyond airstrikes and the deployment of 3,000 U.S. military advisors. Meanwhile, the Obama administration undermines the urgency of its own request for a resolution by insisting that it has all the authority it needs thanks to two previous congressional votes.
The first, approved in 2001, authorized the president to use force against those who "planned, authorized, committed or aided" the 9/11 attacks. The second authorization, from 2002, authorized President George W. Bush's use of force against "the continuing threat posed by Iraq."
Besides being responses to long-ago threats, these authorizations are extraordinarily broad and open-ended, potentially permitting everything from airstrikes and military advisors to the deployment of massive numbers of U.S. ground forces. By contrast, the proposed new three-year authorization submitted to Congress by the White House in February would rule out "enduring offensive ground combat operations."
Obama says he has no intention of reversing the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, where more than 4,000 Americans lost their lives. But without a new authorization cementing that commitment into law, Americans can't be certain that a sudden collapse of the Iraqi army and its allied militias won't tempt the president to escalate U.S. involvement.
On Monday, Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.) released the text of a letter they sent to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) requesting expeditious action on a new authorization aimed at Islamic State, and warning that continued inaction would "cede to the executive branch a power that the framers intentionally delegated to Congress." But Congress should act not only to assert a constitutional prerogative but to help ensure that the U.S. isn't again drawn into a lengthy and bloody war in the Middle East.