It’s becoming clear that we’re about to seriously ramp up efforts to combat ISIS in Iraq and possibly Syria as well. While it would be extremely premature to call it a “war,” there is some kind of more significant military action on its way.
But there won’t be a Congressional vote to authorize it, even though there are members of both parties asking for a vote, and there have even been resolutions authorizing force introduced. At the moment, both the White House and Congress are too afraid of the implications, in both the short and long term, to permit a force authorization to be debated and voted on.
As the Post reported last night, Congress isn’t expecting any formal proposal from the White House, and whatever they say in public about it, they’re probably relieved.
In an ironic way, the fact that stepped-up military action is all but a certainty is precisely what makes a congressional authorization unlikely. The last thing the White House wants is a repeat of what happened a year ago, when President Obama requested a resolution authorizing air strikes against the Syrian government in response to its use of chemical weapons, then the resolution stalled in Congress and the air strikes never happened. The President’s position now is that he doesn’t need a resolution to take action, which means that Congress wouldn’t stop him even if they voted a resolution down (granting that such a vote in Congress would make it much tougher for him to proceed without condemnation from many quarters).
Here’s why many members of Congress probably don’t want to take this vote.
If there were a vote, Many would be asking themselves two questions: what do I think is the right thing for us to do now, and how is this vote going to look in a year or two or five? If you vote against the resolution — and military action proceeds anyway and it’s a sweeping success — then you’ll later be criticized as a weakling who didn’t want to combat the barbarism of ISIS. But if you vote for it and we end up getting sucked into another quagmire, you’ll be in the position everyone who voted for the Iraq war resolution in 2002 has been in ever since, constantly having to explain and justify your role in setting in motion a foreign policy disaster.
Then there’s the question of exactly what a resolution would say. If it’s too constraining, those who favor a comprehensive military engagement might balk; if it’s too broad, it would be opposed by those who fear an open-ended conflict that keeps ratcheting up.
So the path we’re on now is one that serves everyone’s interest. Without a resolution, President Obama doesn’t have to take the risk of a formal rebuke from Congress. But the White House is sending representatives to brief Congress about the situation, so members can feel (and say) they were consulted. By not casting an up-or-down vote, no member needs to take responsibility for what happens. If the military action is successful, they can say they were behind it all along. If it fails in any way, they can say everything would have been different if only Obama had heeded their counsel (and they can claim that they would have voted against a resolution, had there been one).
You can argue that this mutual agreement to minimize political risk sets a troubling precedent. When the Framers gave Congress the sole power to declare war, they probably didn’t envision the wide variety of invasions, police actions, and military engagements contemporary American presidents undertake, some of which are done with congressional permission and some without. We haven’t yet defined precisely where the line is between an action the president can take on his own and one that requires the consent of Congress. Pinpointing that line is surely challenging. But it might be worth thinking about, since this question is going to come up again and again in the future. After all, we seldom go more than a few years without invading somebody.