When President Obama declared in September that the United States would be part of an international effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State, he said vaguely that he welcomed congressional support but insisted that he already had the necessary legal authority to act. It soon emerged that the administration was relying for that authority on two extremely thin legal reeds: the 2001 resolution in which Congress authorized the use of force against the architects of 9/11 and a 2002 resolution authorizing force to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq” — the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, that is.
Then, Obama told reporters Nov. 5 that “we've already had conversations with members of both parties in Congress, and the idea is to — to right-size and update whatever authorization Congress provides to suit the current fight, rather than previous fights.” But again, neither he nor congressional leaders took steps to push for a new authorization for use of military force.
That's unacceptable. This is a new and different war — not a repeat of the George W. Bush-era conflicts — and Congress must debate the wisdom, or folly, of using force. The military campaign against Islamic State so far has included airstrikes in Syria and Iraq and a planned increase to 3,000 in the number of U.S. military advisors in Iraq. It's wrong for the administration to rely on congressional resolutions that were passed more than a decade ago and designed to deal with different circumstances.
Moreover, any such resolution should be carefully drafted and narrowly targeted so that it is not open to over-interpretation, as the post-9/11 authorization was. Lawmakers should take Obama at his word and make clear that it doesn't authorize the deployment of U.S. ground combat forces. That restriction is contained in a proposal by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) that is also time-limited: It would authorize continued airstrikes and the deployment of military advisors and special operations forces for 18 months.
Adoption of Schiff's resolution would go a considerable way toward alleviating fears of a mission creep that might culminate in the reversal of one of Obama's proudest achievements: the extrication of U.S. troops from a country where more than 4,000 Americans lost their lives after the 2003 invasion. Dangerous as Islamic State is to the people of Iraq and Syria, the threat it poses doesn't justify a repetition of that sacrifice.
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