MORE THAN a year after the United States began airstrikes against the Islamic State, the results are mixed: The terrorists have been pushed back in some parts of Iraq and Syria but have expanded their territory in others, and they continue to attract recruits and inspire the creation of affiliates in countries from Afghanistan to Libya. The Obama administration has slowly ramped up its commitment of troops, its cooperation with allies and its range of operations. To all appearances, a solid majority in Congress supports this creeping escalation; many, like us, believe that President Obama should have embraced more robust measures. Extraordinarily, however, Congress has yet to vote on authorizing the conflict, leaving Mr. Obama to act on the dubious legal authority provided by the 2001 congressional vote to support action against al-Qaeda.
The consequences of this abdication are not merely technical. Congress is eroding its standing to check presidential war-making and sending the message to troops that they lack the country’s unambiguous backing. As the war expands, the legal justification for it grows steadily more fragile. When asked at a Senate hearing in July whether the administration had the authority to defend Syrian rebels from government attacks, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter responded that he wasn’t sure. Yet the Pentagon subsequently pledged to provide that protection.
One big reason for Congress’s failure to act has been disputes among Democrats, Republicans and the White House over what an authorization should say. Democrats would like to include limits on the scope of the war, including a ban on ground troops and an expiration date for the authority. Republicans generally reject such provisions, seeing them as improper micromanagement of military operations or as an attempt to bind the next president.
Lost in this debate is what should be the overriding imperative of a vote to authorize the war. Those who insist on conditionality ensure only that the president will continue to act on authority that is as expansive as it is thin.
Encouragingly, a bipartisan war authorization draft has emerged in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Crafted by Sens. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), it attempts to bridge the gap between the two parties’ positions with language that discourages the use of “significant” ground troops against the Islamic State while stopping short of an explicit ban. Importantly, it does not limit the war geographically, making action against Islamic State affiliates in places such as Libya possible; and it authorizes action against any entity that “presents a direct threat” to “forces trained by the coalition,” which would cover potential action to defend Syrian rebels against the Assad regime.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats will be entirely happy with the Kaine-Flake language, but it ought to be the basis for a compromise. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has said that he would like to see a war authorization passed. Once his committee completes its debate of the Iran nuclear agreement this month, a vote on the war should be a priority.
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