Two U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle jets fly over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in neighboring Syria.(Matthew Bruch / U.S. Air Force)
Before Congress leaves the capital for the holidays, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) must schedule a vote on an authorization for the war against Islamic State.
It’s a constitutional imperative. Here’s why.
The United States has been engaged against Islamic State militants since early August with operations against targets in Iraq and Syria. Aircraft have launched hundreds of airstrikes against Islamic State military and economic targets and struck the Khorasan Group — an Al Qaeda cell. At the same time, other U.S. forces are on a training and advisory mission to strengthen Iraqi and Kurdish forces, and the Pentagon is beginning its new effort to provide assistance to select elements of the anti-Assad opposition in Syria.
Administration officials have repeatedly told the American people to be prepared for a conflict that could last many years, an admonition reinforced by the Pentagon’s announcement this month that it would more than double the American troop commitment to the operation in Iraq against Islamic State, to almost 3,000. And President Obama is seeking $5.6 billion this year in funding.
After three months of White House-ordered airstrikes and other activities to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” Islamic State, the issue is more than ripe for congressional action. And despite the reported hesitation of the speaker to bring up an authorization during the lame-duck session, there are good reasons Congress should meet its obligations under Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution by deciding whether to grant the president the power to conduct this new war.
First, the administration’s use of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force — which allowed action against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks — as legal justification for the current military operation requires an extraordinarily broad and problematic reading of that measure. Although Islamic State may share Al Qaeda’s hatred of the United States and the West, the group did not even exist in 2001 and had no role in the Sept. 11 attacks. Nor is Islamic State affiliated with or aiding Al Qaeda, having been expressly repudiated by the Zawahiri leadership. Despite reports of an agreement to coordinate efforts between the two groups, there is little evidence to suggest anything other than a temporary response to damage being inflicted on both by coalition strikes.
Vehement opposition to President Bashar Assad’s brutal government in Syria and to the harshly sectarian policies of former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in Iraq, not Sept. 11 or allegiance to Osama bin Laden, has fueled the rise of Islamic State and allowed it to capture huge swaths of territory in those two nations. The group threatens tens of millions, and its extreme violence and barbarity must be confronted. But to claim the 2001 AUMF as the authority to do so gives that statute a scope that is as expansive as it is unending. And in a new authorization, we must look at sunsetting or repealing this and the previous Iraq war authorization.
Second, although Obama has made repeated reports, as required by the War Powers Resolution, detailing operations of the war, the timetable laid out in that law for authorizing action has expired. The president is now operating outside the Constitution. That fact is something that certainly must have weighed heavily on him as he considered whether to ask Congress for a discrete authorization against Islamic State, as opposed to his earlier invitation for us to merely express our support.
Third, the threat from Islamic State to our national security and to core American foreign policy interests is sufficient to warrant military force as an element of a multifaceted campaign. But no president has the power to commit the nation’s sons and daughters to war without authorization from Congress, and no Congress should ever abdicate its responsibility for reasons of political expediency or scheduling convenience. This is not a decision that can or should wait until 2015; this action was begun during the 113th Congress and it is well within our ability to authorize it properly before adjourning for the year.
I believe that Congress — both Democrats and Republicans — would support a narrowly tailored authorization that gives the president the authority he needs here.
Whether we act to pass a resolution I introduced this fall that would allow 18 months of continued airstrikes and limited special operations against Islamic State, or some other authorization such as the one proposed by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Congress cannot avoid its duty to act. For more than two centuries, Congress and the president have shared the power of war — a bifurcation of authority deliberately written into the Constitution to prevent a president from committing the nation to hostilities on his own. Congress’ failure to act now would set a dangerous precedent — that Congress’ power to declare war is a meaningless anachronism that can be ignored by the White House.
As we prepare to close the book on what is regarded as the most unproductive Congress in the history of unproductive Congresses, the House and Senate can take an important step in demonstrating not only a capacity to act, but also a commitment to our constitutional duty.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) is a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee.
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