Why Congress Should Simply Bag the War Powers Debate
Policy + Politics

Why Congress Should Simply Bag the War Powers Debate


Years from now, historians may be scratching their heads and asking why it was that Congress refused to grant President Obama specific new war powers to carry out a critical military campaign against ISIS terrorists.

Over the past nine months, ISIS forces have emerged as arguably one of the most ruthless and dangerous organization in modern history. They have murdered and displaced tens of thousands of people throughout the Middle East, beheaded and crucified captives and methodically attempted to wipe away the religions, culture and art of previous Middle Eastern civilizations.

Related: Why the Senate Is So Torn on Obama War Powers

ISIS leaders have attracted volunteers from across the globe and fostered homegrown terrorism in Europe, Australia and Canada. Just recently, Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based Islamist terror group that has waged a relentless campaign of carnage in North Africa and beyond, pledged allegiance to ISIS.

At one time, it was almost unthinkable that the president would have to go it alone go it alone in waging war on ISIS, but now it seems almost a certainty that Congress will choose to stand on the sidelines rather than making the tough political decision of declaring new parameters for war in the Middle East.

President Obama at one time voiced skepticism that he would need additional authority from Congress to wage allied air strikes against ISIS and arm and train allied militants and rebels in Iraq and Syria to eventually bring ISIS to its knees. But he relented after the Democrats lost the November election and then formally submitted a request for new authorization from the Republican-controlled Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and other GOP leaders were adamant that the war powers granted to former President George W. Bush a decade ago to invade Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11 needed to be updated.

Related: ISIS Destroys Second Largest Museum in Iraq

In that way, there could be no question of whether Congress was behind its commander-in-chief in this crucial military venture. It would also spark a much needed debate on U.S. policy in the Middle East and force Republicans and Democrats alike to have some skin in the game.

The proposed war powers legislation ultimately submitted by the president would impose a three-year limit on American action that has been conducted largely from the air and allow Special Operations endeavors and other limited missions. However, it would rule out sustained large-scale ground combat. It would also finally repeal the expansive 2002 congressional measure authorizing the Bush administration’s war in Iraq.

The proposed three-year expiration date for the authority and the prohibition against the “enduring” use of U.S. ground combat troops are sticking points with the Republicans. Defense hawks such as Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) think the presidential request falls far short of what’s needed to ultimately defeat ISIS, and that the U.S. may eventually have to deploy ground troops in the Middle East.

Democrats, meanwhile, complain that the language is too flexible and that Obama or a future president could lead the country deeper into a Middle East quagmire.

Just about no one on Capitol Hill wants to leave his or her fingerprints on new war powers authorization – even with polls showing that the majority of Americans now think the U.S. should go all out to defeat ISIS.

Related: Can the U.S. Defeat ISIS Without a War Powers Deal?

Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN), who favors a more robust assault, said he and his GOP colleagues were unimpressed with the president’s strategy and feared it was a recipe for failure. He added, “We don’t know of a single Democrat that supports that authorization for use of military force.”

So where do we go from here?  Michael E. O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert with the Brookings Institution, wrote on Monday that the last thing the nation needs right now is more pointless political acrimony. His solution for breaking the current impasse is to “kill the debate and leave well enough alone.”   

“We don’t need a new war powers act for this conflict right now,” he wrote in a blog post.

Instead, he said the United States can fall back on the 2001 authorization for military force passed shortly after the 9/11 attacks and allow retaliation against groups involved in that attack or any other entities supporting and abetting them. “That [2001] authorization was open-ended and as such can still guide current policymaking, even now,” O’Hanlon wrote.

Related: America’s War with ISIS Will Take Years

“There is a surreality about trying to determine, here in the comfort of Washington, D.C. in early 2015, exactly what tools of military power may or may not be needed, and for how long, and for what specific purposes, in the future campaign against ISIL [ISIS],” O’Hanlon wrote.

“We don’t know how to predict what happens in war,” O’Hanlon concluded. “And we don’t know what the al-Qaeda and ISIL threats will look like in 2018, in Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan or someplace else. Let’s not try to figure it out now. The better part of valor, and wisdom, is being humble in our ability to forecast the future about this particular type of threat.”

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