Agreeing to agree on force authorization against ISIS

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It seems the White House and Congress can’t agree on something they agree on.


That’s a new authorization to use military force to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In his state of the union message, President Barack Obama said Congress should “show the world we are united in this mission” by passing such a measure, often referred to in Washington-speak as AUMF. Congress is ready to “have hearings on that” and will “have a debate and a vote,” said House Speaker John Boehner.

But nothing much is happening. The White House hasn’t sent over language it would like in the bill. While Obama has advocated a new AUMF declaration, the administration continues to insist that Obama has the power to act under military measures passed after 9/11 and to authorize the Iraq invasion.

The only legislation so far is a bill introduced Wednesday by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) that would empower military action for three years but forbid the introduction of U.S. ground troops.

Several things seem clear:

* We are at war against ISIS. Congress will fail its constitutional duty to be responsible for declaring war if it doesn’t pass an authorization measure. Allowing the White House to wage hostilities without a congressional declaration would undermine the legislative branch’s legitimacy and function in government.

* It’s the president’s role to tell Congress what he wants. He is the commander-in-chief and he must lead, not wait for Congress to act.

* Failure by Obama to act will result in bills like the one offered by Schiff that too severely restrict what the president can do in the middle of a conflict. While no one wants more American soldiers on the ground and in harm’s way, the vagaries of war cannot be dictated from Capitol Hill. A war can’t be micromanaged by 535 generals in Congress.

Anti-war Democrats worry about giving an open-ended commitment to the White House. Indeed, the realities of the protracted, asymmetrical war against Islamist terrorism — no one envisions a surrender ceremony on a U.S. battleship as ended World War II — ensure that writing a new AUMF will be a contested process.

Still, it’s the complexities and uncertainties that require the commander-in-chief to be nimble to respond quickly to unexpected changes in the conflict. For example, Tuesday’s attack on a hotel in Libya used by international travelers raised fears that ISIS is expanding its operations beyond Iraq and Syria into North Africa.

While Democrats voice anti-war positions, Republicans worry that, as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina put it, Obama is “overselling our successes and underestimating the threats.”

Fears about Obama’s leadership aren’t coming just from the right. They are voiced in articles in the Daily Beast by an icon of the establishment: Leslie H. Gelb, a Pulitzer Prizing-winning former writer for the New York Times, an assistant secretary of state in the Carter administration, and now president emeritus and board senior fellow at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations.

Gelb writes that Congress shouldn’t give Obama a AUMF bill until he “presents a convincing strategy for winning.” Gelb says Obama “just can’t seem to bring himself to make big and bold strategic choices.” Gelb calls for sacking and replacing the president’s inner core of advisers because “the Obama team lacks the basic instincts and judgment necessary to conduct U.S. national security policy in the next two years.”

Clearly, there’s a lot of work to do to get the military authorization measure vital to the president and the Congress. Just both sides agreeing one is needed is not enough.


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