The war against Islamic State is intensifying. Britain has joined the bombing campaign and President Obama has authorized Special Forces missions in Iraq and Syria targeting Islamic State leaders. But U.S. involvement in the war, which is critical to its success, has yet to be authorized by Congress. It is time to fix that.
President Obama claims authority to conduct military action in Iraq and Syria because in 2001 Congress authorized war against al-Qaida, and Islamic State is arguably an outgrowth of that organization.
But the military problems posed by Islamic State are considerably different, and the international politics of this war are far more complex. In February Mr. Obama proposed that Congress give him specific authority to conduct military operations against Islamic State, with the proviso that there would be no “enduring offensive ground operations” by U.S. armed forces and that the authority would expire in three years.
His proposed “Authorization for the Use of Military Force” (AUMF) would have permitted operations such as the Special Forces training and combat missions in Syria recently authorized by Mr. Obama, although from a political perspective these operations appear to go beyond his promise that he would not put American “boots on the ground” in the new war zone.
Critics attacked the wisdom of tying the president’s hands, including those of Mr. Obama’s successor, and questioned the notion — also adopted by Mr. Obama in Afghanistan — that once a war is launched it can be fought to its end on a timetable.
But Congress ducked the challenge by the president to hold a debate on the nation’s commitment to the war against Islamic State.
Recent developments call for Congress to engage now in the postponed debate. These include Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, the terrorist attack in Paris and the apparent terrorist motive of the mass killings in San Bernardino, Calif.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican presidential candidate, on Thursday introduced his own proposed AUMF, setting no limits on where the Islamic State can be engaged, at what level of force, or for how long. Those questions will have to be eventually decided by this president and his successor, but the role of Congress should be to show national resolve, not to run a military campaign.
“The AUMF I introduced today will not limit us in terms of time, geography, or means in the fight against ISIL,” said Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It will show our enemies and friends alike that we will destroy ISIL wherever they reside, fight them as long as they pose a threat, and that we are ‘All-In’ when it comes to their destruction. We have two choices regarding ISIL — fight them in their backyard or fight them in ours. I choose to fight them in their backyard.”
The Graham resolution is a good starting point for the debate Congress must now take on.