You can’t be a little bit pregnant. Can you just be a little bit at war?
Congress is contemplating that question as it debates an authorization for the use of military force against the Islamic State. The language the Obama administration has proposed—after the bombing has already begun, naturally—is too open-ended for some and too limited for others.
House Speaker John Boehner, who is suing the president for overreach on immigration, thinks the resolution doesn’t go far enough. “The president is asking for less authority than he has today under previous authorizations,” Boehner said on Fox News. “I don’t think that’s smart.” The speaker called for a “robust strategy.”
“For many of us it’s going to be tough to swallow restrictions on ground troops that [don’t] seem to be much of a restriction at all,” said Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy. “This would have to be changed dramatically for me to support it.”
Obama’s fellow Illinoisan, second-ranking Senate Democrat Dick Durbin, echoed this concern: “We have some legitimate questions as to whether we open this up with a loophole that could lead to another major war.”
John McCain, the current chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is seething about the prospect of limiting future presidents’ options. McCain is also raising constitutional questions about Congress’s role in conducting the war once launched. Loopholes are inherent in this process, he in effect argues, and he may not be wrong.
Meanwhile, ISIS posts video of another mass beheading. This time 21 Egyptian Christians are the victims. A Danish gunman who attacked a Copenhagen synagogue may also have been inspired by ISIS.
On the surface, this appears to be another example of the diffident president Republicans have always warned us about. Secretary of State John Kerry once promised an “unbelievably small” war against Syria. The war on ISIS may be teensy-weensy.
While Obama is seen as a big break from George W. Bush, it seems that all he learned from Bush (and Bill Clinton) is that American casualties sap support for military interventions, but aerial bombing campaigns and drone strikes do little damage to your approval ratings even when the results are bad.
Yet there are some competing interests at stake that make Obama’s King Solomon impression more understandable. The United States has a role to play in “degrading” ISIS, but Americanizing the war could play into the jihadists’ hands. Not only is mission creep easy to anticipate, but some hawks would really prefer expanding the war to Iran and Syria over fighting ISIS. Others hope that the anti-ISIS coalition will grow with Assad gone from power in Damascus.
But the last two countries destabilized by American preventive wars for regime change—Iraq under Bush and Libya under Obama—are crawling with ISIS terrorists. Loathsome though the governments of Iran and Syria may be, they are fighting ISIS.
This is more properly a war for the governments in the region that ISIS would like to topple. But what if they are unwilling to fight it? Can the United States risk parts of Iraq and Syria becoming like Afghanistan during the 9/11 attacks?
Our Nobel Peace Prize president has been a reluctant warrior. He has not given the impression that he has fully believed in his surge in Afghanistan, his “kinetic military action” in Libya, or his aborted mission in Syria. In two of those cases, however, he acted anyway.
Here we face a situation where there may not be any good options. A legal version of what the president is already doing, sanctioned by Congress as the Constitution requires, is perhaps the least bad alternative.
But dragging America back into another Iraq-like war so soon after extricating ourselves from the last one, either under Obama or his successor, seems like the definition of insanity: repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting different results.
Thus we find the president and Congress trying to design a resolution that will formally authorize the limited steps we must take while keeping this from snowballing into another no-win war in the Middle East. Trying, that is, to be a little bit pregnant.
Their intentions may be good, but our recent track record of managing this difficult balance is not.
W. James Antle III is managing editor of the Daily Caller and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?