What should a responsible lawmaker do? Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had it right: “There is a pretty simple authorization he could ask for and it would read one sentence: ‘We authorize the president to defeat and destroy ISIL.'” And that is, almost, what Congress should do.
First, the president deserves an up or down vote on his own Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). It should make clear that his incessant belief in halfway war has no real support, from either party. Then, the House and Senate should proceed to vote on Rubio’s one-liner, with a couple of caveats.
First, Congress should make clear that the enemy is not “ISIL” or any other discrete group, but all groups committed to jihadist terror and conquest whether it is al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, or any other group on the list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Oh, but you say, that includes Hamas and Hezbollah. Well, yes, why shouldn’t we want to destroy those organizations? The method and prioritization of attack on these groups and others remains in the hands of the commander in chief; it does now under Article II of the Constitution and it should. If Congress is to commit itself to the war against jihadist terrorists, it should not play the same game the president does, namely picking and choosing which terrorist groups to go after.
Second, Congress should go on record, as opposed to what is now the president’s obvious game plan, a tacit reconciliation with Iran. From Dennis Ross to Michael Doran to allies in the region (Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states, Israel) it is widely understood that the president is seeking to cede to Iran its regional ambitions. As he allows Iranian influence to metastasize and dominate in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, he is content to enter into a North Korea-style deal with Iran, leaving it in possession of thousands of centrifuges and a robust ballistic missile program. Congress should be clear that Iran remains at war with the United States (even if we are not at war with it), detailing its killing of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and its sponsorship of terror. It should declare that it is the policy of the United States to abide by the United Nations declarations regarding Iran’s illegal nuclear program and to check Iran’s aggression against our allies.
This would accomplish several things. First, it would lay the groundwork for opposition to a sweetheart deal between the P5+1 and Iran. It would also provide some reassurance to our allies, who suspect the president is selling them out and disregarding their interests. And, most important, it would reinforce what Ross and others have said. “On one side are the Islamists — both Sunni and Shiite. ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood represent the Sunni end of the spectrum, while the Islamic Republic of Iran and its militias, including Hezbollah (in Lebanon and Syria) and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (in Iraq), constitute the other. Many of these Islamists are at war with one other, but they are also engaged in a bitter struggle with non-Islamists to define the fundamental identity of the region and its states. What the Islamists all have in common is that they subordinate national identities to an Islamic identity.”
Put differently, “Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabab in Somalia, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Al-Nusra in Syria, the Mahdi army in Iraq, and the Al-Qaida branches in Yemen, Libya, the Philippines, India and elsewhere. Some are radical Sunnis, some are radical Shiites, some want to restore a pre-medieval caliphate from the seventh century, others want to trigger the apocalyptic return of an imam from the ninth century. They operate in different lands, they target different victims and they even kill each other in their battle for supremacy. But they all share a fanatic ideology. They all seek to create ever-expanding enclaves of militant Islam where there is no freedom and no tolerance, where women are treated as chattel, Christians are decimated and minorities are subjugated, sometimes given the stark choice, convert or die. For them, anyone can be considered an infidel, including fellow Muslims.” That was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations last September. And finally, for right-wing grand-standers who oppose the president and employ fiery rhetoric about the Islamic threat but do not support a robust, complete fight, it will be a moment of truth. (Are you prepared, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), to repulse the enemy you talk about with force and effort proportionate to the threat, or are you merely a purveyor of hot air?)
The president wants to deny the enormity of the problem, limit our fight to one of many manifestations of Islamic terror and tie our hands even in that one fight. Congress should reject that and tell the president, our enemies and our allies that the problem is much bigger and that the president cannot be limited in time, geography or group name in defense of Western civilization. It does not mean we put ground troops in every spot, but it does mean that the president should be using the full tool box of power (military, economic, diplomatic) to attack the problem. It would be interesting to see what the objection would be. What Democrat wants to go on record as saying Boko Haram or the al-Nusra Front is not part of the Islamist threat? We already designate these terrorist groups; Congress is simply telling the president to do something about it — using his own discretion to attack the threat. The White House is going to openly reject the idea that we should thwart Iran’s ambitions? That would be a revealing moment.
In short, if we are going to have a debate we should not have it on the president’s terms, as if we are arguing about a three-year problem in only two countries that can be defeated with circumscribed powers. Every 2016 hopeful — including Hillary Clinton (if her undisclosed secret location can be found) — should go on record. Do we have an Islamist threat or not, and what do we intend to do about it? Do we want to side with Iran or with our Arab allies and Israel in the Middle East? These are the great questions of our time and they deserve full discussion.