Congress needs to take back its war powers in the fight against ISIS

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“We’re not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach,” then-President Barack Obama said during an Aug. 30, 2013 news conference about the situation in Syria. The former president would repeat his promise not to deploy “boots on the ground” over the next few years. But by 2016, U.S. ground forces were operating in Syria as part of the war against Islamic State.

President Donald Trump now plans to expand the war against ISIS. U.S. Marines have deployed alongside Syrian rebels as they plan an assault on the ISIS capital of Raqqa and expect to provide artillery support for the upcoming offensive. Before U.S. Marines engage in ground combat against the enemy, it’s time for a debate about the mission against ISIS. When Obama first ordered U.S. military action against ISIS in the summer of 2014, he did so without congressional approval.

The U.S. Constitution gives Congress alone the power to declare war, although the reality has always been more complicated than that. Under the War Powers Resolution that was passed in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the president is required to report to Congress whenever U.S. military forces are sent into combat and withdraw them within 60 days unless Congress expressly authorizes the use of force.

Congress has never authorized specific military action against ISIS in Iraq, Syria or any country. The Obama administration—and, presumably, the Trump administration, as well—claimed they were authorized to fight ISIS under the resolution passed after Sept. 11 that allowed the U.S. military to fight the perpetrators of the attack. While ISIS is an offshoot of al-Qaida, it is a stretch, to say the least, to claim that the group was behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

Congress needs to take back its war powers. The last time the United States declared war was after Pearl Harbor. Since then, military force has been used both with and without congressional approval. For the 2011 air war against Libya, President Barack Obama did not even bother consulting with or seeking congressional approval. Now is the time for Congress to put its foot down and stand up for its own prerogatives.

Congress should threaten to defund all military operations against ISIS unless they specifically authorize the war. They should force the Trump administration to justify the war against ISIS and committing U.S. ground troops to both Iraq and Syria. It would force lawmakers and the American public to debate and think long and hard before deploying the military to yet another war in the Middle East.

In many ways, the war against ISIS has many resemblances to the Vietnam War, which spurred the first attempts to rein in presidential war powers. Both wars have seen “mission creep,” or the ratcheting up of U.S. military presence over time instead of a clear objective. For example, the Vietnam War started as a U.S. train-and-equip mission for South Vietnam, whereas the war against ISIS started out as an air bombardment campaign in Iraq.

Involving Congress in the decision to go to war not only forces the executive branch to justify the war, but also to detail what kind of resources will be used to prosecute the mission. Involving Congress also could be a way to unite the country behind a war, provided the public determines the war is just. To his credit, Obama essentially did this in 2013, as his promise about “boots on the ground” aligned with the American people’s conclusion that a war in Syria was not in America’s best interests.

Of course, getting congressional approval does not always mean a war will be easy or quickly concluded. The Iraq War was, of course, authorized by Congress. Before American forces get bogged down in further quagmires in Iraq and Syria, Congress needs to ask some tough questions about the mission. What are we trying to achieve in the fight against ISIS? How is the United States going to achieve those goals? What kind of force is needed to achieve those goals? Is there a better option?

Once Congress gets the answers to those questions, it can and should serve as the deliberative body charged with whether to authorize war against ISIS. Alternatively, it could determine it’s time to pull the pull the plug.


Image by BPTU

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