In announcing last week that he would seek to "degrade, and ultimately destroy" Islamic State, President Obama asserted that, while he welcomed congressional support, he already possessed the legal authority to use military force against the group in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. That's a dangerous assertion of authority in which Congress must not acquiesce.
No one can deny that the campaign against Islamic State, which already has involved airstrikes on the group's positions in Iraq, represents a new undertaking for the United States. Yet in offering legal justification for this escalation, the president's advisors are citing two congressional enactments more than a decade old that arose from vastly different circumstances.
One is the post-Sept. 11 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which empowered the president to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001." Even if one reads this language as applying to forces "associated" with Al Qaeda, the connection with Islamic State is tenuous. True, it's an offshoot of a group that called itself Al Qaeda in Iraq, but it has been repudiated by Al Qaeda's central leadership.
As an "alternative statutory authority," a senior administration official pointed to the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force "against the continuing threat posed by Iraq." That document was a prelude to the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It's an even flimsier authority for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria than the 2001 AUMF.
We agree that Islamic State is a threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East and particularly to the stability of Iraq, and its savagery was appallingly evident in its beheading of two American journalists and a British aid worker. Whether the threat it poses justifies the major escalation Obama has announced — especially airstrikes in Syria — is another question, one that Congress needs to confront before exercising its constitutional authority to declare war (and AUMFs are declarations of war by another name).
This week, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) introduced a measure that would authorize the president to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against Islamic State within the territory of Iraq and Syria but would prohibit the deployment of U.S. ground forces. The authorization would expire after 18 months. Because it essentially codifies Obama's battle plan, the Schiff bill offers Congress an opportunity to scrutinize the president's case for war and then do its duty. Abstaining is not an option.