There is a clear consensus that an ISIL army that slaughters the innocent must be overcome and that part of that responsibility falls on the United States. There are significant questions, however, as to what the American role should be and, equally important, who decides.
President Obama has asked Congress to enact an authorization for the use of American military force against ISIL, spelling out limits on the scope and duration of U.S. involvement. Like most recent presidents, he maintains the fiction that he has the necessary authority to make those decisions himself. (In this case he relies not only on the thin reed of his role as commander in chief — a title that does not include the authority to decide when the nation will go to war — but on a congressional authorization that granted approval years ago for military action only against the perpetrators of the 2001 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon). But even if he is unwilling to surrender those claims of presidential supremacy, the president deserves credit for understanding that military action is most defensible when authorized by the branch of government that is actually vested with the constitutional power to send the country to war.
(As an aside, in 1991 I was one of the managers of a House bill authorizing President George H.W. Bush to commit American troops to military action in the first Gulf War. During the Reagan presidency it was my amendment that overturned a congressional ban on assistance to rebels opposing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. In both cases, regardless of which side of the debate one was on, it was accepted that these were all legitimately questions to be decided by Congress.)
The question today is therefore whether Congress should grant the president authority to use American military force against ISIL and under what conditions. Here there are several important considerations. Republicans, for the most part, are opposed to the president’s request that the authorization be limited to a three-year time span, while many Democrats support the time limit. We’ve now lived through years of war on many fronts against a variety of enemies with various aims. Setting a time limit on the immediate authorization does not preclude Congress from renewing the authority later, but it does provide a means to avoid setting the nation on a path toward open-ended conflict. Congress should therefore give the president the authority he seeks for a limited amount of time with the always-available option of a reassessment later.
The second consideration is about the scope of the authority to be granted the president, not just geographically or against which forces but in terms of which American abilities are to be employed — funding, intelligence gathering, training, air support, ground combat units. Of all these, the use of ground troops — the so-called “boots on the ground” — should be the resource we should be the most hesitant to deploy. As horrible as the ISIL atrocities have been, and despite the danger to some Americans and some American facilities, the greater long-term security threat is not to the United States but to the countries in the region where ISIL is active. If ISIL is not stopped, it is the Saudi king, the Jordanian king, the Syrian king, the leaders of Iraq and Egypt and Iran and Turkey, who will be beheaded and whose countries will become hostage to ISIL’s medieval barbarism. This is not a war of Muslims versus non-Muslims. It is a war of Muslim zealots against the broader Muslim world. The leadership — in manpower and money — for stopping the ISIL threat must come from those most threatened, not from an America that has already sacrificed billions of dollars and countless lives in the conflicts of the Middle East.
There are many who will disagree with me and can legitimately point to potential hardships here if ISIL is successful and much of the world’s oil supply is held hostage because America did too little to stop the advance of terror. And some will argue that by supporting uprisings against dictators who were maintaining Middle East stability, the United States bears some responsibility for the unraveling that has followed (although there is always the possibility that the American presence, as it has done before, will only aggravate the situation, and that therefore it is even more important that the nations most directly involved take the lead in their own defense). None of these are inconsequential arguments. But a decision today to empower President Obama to bring our multiple resources to bear against ISIL need not preclude revisiting the issue in three years, or even sooner if Congress chooses.
For now the best answer is to demand that those most threatened take the lead in protecting themselves — their countries and their lives — with the United States as a supporting ally. That’s the position I would advocate if I were still in Congress today. But whether or not that is the view that prevails, what matters is that the decision will be made by the peoples’ representatives, just as the Constitution requires.