Editorial: Retroactively Authorizing War
They went largely unnoticed, four words President Obama ad-libbed during the State of the Union address last month as he asked lawmakers to provide legal cover for America’s military intervention in Iraq and Syria.
“We need that authority,” the president said, adding a line to the prepared remarks on his teleprompter that seemed to acknowledge a reality about which his administration has been inexcusably dishonest.
As the new Congress gets settled in, the debate over the scope and legal authority of Washington’s new war in the Middle East has resurfaced amid strikingly disparate views. The White House is consulting with lawmakers from both parties on the parameters that would retroactively establish ground rules for the bombing campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria that began in September.
That task has become more complicated by irresponsible calls from some lawmakers, and the nation’s top military officer, for an expansive mandate that would leave this president, and his successors, with dangerously broad authority to use military force in perpetuity.
The Islamic State, a barbaric militant group that seeks to establish a caliphate, poses a dire threat to the United States and its allies that will take a long time, and significant resources, to fight. But the group, also known as ISIL and ISIS, cannot serve as a pretext to give the executive branch what amounts to a blank check to battle an ever-shifting array of enemies around the globe.
By failing to replace the sweeping war authorizations Congress established for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan more than a decade ago, with a far narrower mandate, lawmakers are abdicating one of their most consequential constitutional powers: the authority to declare war. White House officials maintain that the current campaign in Iraq and Syria is legal under the Afghan and Iraq war resolutions, a dubious argument considering those were tailored to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks and to deal with Saddam Hussein, then the Iraqi leader, on the grounds — since proved to be false — that he had weapons of mass destruction.
While President Obama has called on Congress to draft a new authorization for the use of military force, the White House has yet to lay out a specific blueprint that could serve as a starting point for negotiations on Capitol Hill. Testifying in early December, Secretary of State John Kerry left the impression that the White House wanted broad flexibility. For instance, Mr. Kerry argued that limiting the battleground to Iraq and Syria would “advertise to ISIL that there are safe havens for them outside” those countries.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated in an interview that he was pushing for a timeless war authorization. “All options should be on the table, and then we can debate whether we want to use them,” he told the Pentagon’s news service on Jan. 23.
Prominent Republicans in recent days have called for an even more robust campaign. Senator John McCain of Arizona, the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, recently said that “American boots on the ground are necessary to defeat” the Islamic State. He also called for the establishment of a no-flight zone in Syria and more support for so-called moderate rebels. His position would not seem as ill-advised if the painful lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t as raw.
Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, has proposed a more reasonable framework. Last week, he introduced a bill that would limit the war authorization to three years, permit the use of force only in Iraq and Syria and prohibit the deployment of American combat ground troops. Mr. Schiff’s plan would nix the Iraq war authorization and sunset the Afghan one in three years. That would give President Obama plenty of flexibility to fight the Islamic State during his remaining time in office. It also would give his successor a reasonable amount of time to take stock of the effort and do what the Constitution requires of American presidents: enlist the support of Congress to wage war.
Source: New York Times
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