Don’t Authorize Obama’s War

Column: Why his request for war authorization is a trap

February 13, 2015

The authorization for the use of military force against ISIS that the Obama administration sent Congress this week is not worthy of the name. Its language is far more about what the president won’t do against the terrorist army that controls much of Syria and Iraq—limits on ground troops and a sunset provision for the authorization after three years—than what he will do. Congress should reject it.

If the threat of ISIS is as dire as the president says it is in the preamble of his resolution, if ISIS really does pose "a grave threat to the people and territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria, regional stability, and the national security interests of the United States and its allies and partners," if ISIS really does "intend to conduct terrorist attacks internationally, including against the United States, its citizens, and interests," then not only does the president already have the authority to strike granted to him by Article II of the Constitution and the 2001 and 2002 war resolutions, he also should not cavil or hesitate in unleashing every means at his disposal to confront and defeat the enemy. Making war is exactly what Obama should have been doing at least since last June when ISIS raised the black flag over the Iraqi city of Mosul.

Yet the urgency and drama with which the president and his advisers describe the actions and intentions of ISIS is remarkably disproportionate to their campaign against it so far: 2,600 U.S. troops in Iraq to act as advisers to the Iraqis and Kurds, a rather desultory campaign of airstrikes that has failed to degrade ISIS seriously, an admission from the vice president that ISIS probably won’t be dislodged from its redoubt in Syria because "there are no boots on the ground," and a dispiriting, academic, wishy-washy attempt by U.S. defense bureaucrats to figure out "what makes the Islamic State so dangerous," as well as the typical self-congratulation and smarm for assembling and maintaining an "international coalition" of allies most of whom do nothing.

This la-di-da attitude to the fight has not gone unnoticed by the Iraqis, who want the Americans to do more but, in the absence of such aid, have turned to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. And the few Syrians left alive who desire more for their charnel house of a country than a frozen conflict between a psychopath who gasses people and a band of zealots who behead them continue to wait for America to make good on its promises of arms and assistance. The administration is quick to publicize the allied victory in the northern Syrian city of Kobani, which came at the cost of more or less razing to the ground this former home to 45,000 Kurds. Such positive headlines are rare, however. Just yesterday ISIS seized a town in Western Iraq from which it can threaten directly U.S. troops.

President Obama is losing the war against ISIS because he is unwilling to commit the resources necessary to the fight: a significant deployment of ground troops, a massive ratcheting up of the air campaign, arms shipments and U.S. bases for the Kurds, an escalation of air strikes to include Syrian air defenses, and above all the weapons, training, and financial and tactical assistance to the "farmers, dentists, and folks who have never fought before" but remain willing to fight not only Assad but also the terrorists who control much of their country.

Our ISIS problem is a consequence of the American failure to respond effectively to our almost four-years-old Syrian problem. ISIS is less the Syrian dictator’s opponent than his unconventional ally, and as long as Assad remains in power so will the sectarian and political furies that gave rise to ISIS at the beginning of the war. And yet it is impossible to believe that Obama will uproot the weed responsible for some 300,000 dead, millions of refugees, use of WMD, and the Caliphate so long as his strategic goals are détente with Iran and a franchising of Middle East "security" to the mullahs.

If I were a member of Congress I happily would vote down Obama’s war resolution for all of these reasons. There is no cause to assent to the president’s demand for a war authority he does not want, does not need, and probably will not use. I also cannot help thinking that the presidential request is little more than a trap, a bone thrown in the direction of the cloakroom to distract from the collapse of America’s position in the Middle East and the approaching deadline for nuclear talks with Iran. How better to provoke infighting among both Republicans and Democrats, to switch the debate from sanctions against Iran to "Rand Paul versus Marco Rubio for the soul of the GOP," than to start a debate over presidential war powers as the war is going on.

Indeed, a congressional rebuke of Obama on the grounds that his proposal does not go far enough is more likely to make him rethink his approach than bipartisan passage or an extended period of debate and modification and attempts to "improve" his language. And even if such a rethinking does not occur, if Obama goes ahead with his strategy based on his current authorities, the Republicans would pay no price. Say that Obama is not looking to distract the Congress with his war authorization but to win congressional buy-in for his policy through the end of his presidency. How is the country made more secure, how is the American interest furthered, by Republican authorization of a flawed strategy? Would the Democrats have gone along with Bush or participated in earnest and collegial discussions with his administration if he had asked Congress to authorize his surge of troops to Iraq in 2007? You can stop laughing.

It was unanimous opposition to the war in Iraq that helped the Democrats win the Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008. And it was the resurgence of the national security issue after the border crisis, ISIS beheadings of Americans, and the outbreak of Ebola on American soil that helped Republicans retake the Senate in 2014. For the GOP now to throw away its critical stance by adopting or seeking to improve the president’s authorization for the use of force would be political folly (and therefore entirely consistent with the party’s history). Far better for us all if the Congress refused the president precisely because he is unserious and untrustworthy with the security of the United States and the world, and spent the remaining two years of his presidency making the case publicly and robustly for the roll back of ISIS and the removal of Assad, an end to the Iranian nuclear program, a military buildup, and a renewal of the alliance system and of American support for Western principles of liberal democracy. That way the voters will be absolutely certain next year that there is a substantive and consequential choice to be made about the future of American foreign policy and security. They will see the results of Obama’s policy of retreat and appeasement throughout the world. And Hillary Clinton won’t be able to say, well, the Republican Congress supported the president, so why don’t you?