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Why Congress Shouldn’t Authorize the War on ISIS

The New York Times calls [1] for passage of an authorization resolution for the war on ISIS:

As the war intensifies, it is more urgent than ever for Congress to approve a new Authorization for Use of Military Force that would provide adequate oversight and clearly articulate the long-term strategy for the fight against the Islamic State. The new mandate should replace the ones the administration is currently relying on and set clear limits that would preclude future administrations from using military force around the globe, anytime, anywhere, without consulting Congress.

The editorial makes a number of good points, but this would be the wrong response to the ever-expanding war on ISIS. Obama’s claim that he wouldn’t “allow” the U.S. to be dragged into a new war was preposterous [2], as the editors say, since he was the one dragging the U.S. into fighting it. They are also right that the legal justifications the administration has offered for the war have always been absurd [3]. That doesn’t mean that Congress should approve of a war that threatens to pull the U.S. deeper into a conflict that it doesn’t need to fight. Congress won’t regain any influence or relevance by becoming a rubber stamp after the fact. Passing an authorization won’t fix the problem that the U.S. blundered into this war without any debate or consideration of the likely costs.

The gradual escalation of the war isn’t surprising. It was always very likely once the administration went on the offensive and declared that the goal of the campaign was to “destroy” ISIS. We know that “limited” interventions don’t stay limited, and we also know that this administration disregards the terms of authorizations when they get in his way. Any limits written into a new AUMF would be adhered to only so long as the president wanted to be bound by them. Obama has already shown that he will interpret authorizations as necessary to justify whatever he does, or he will simply proceed without any authorization to wage a war that he will pretend isn’t really a war.

Passing a new authorization to endorse an ill-conceived and unnecessary war nine months after it began isn’t going to “provide adequate oversight” or “clearly articulate the long-term strategy for the fight against the Islamic State.” Congress has no interest in providing the former and has no more of an idea what the latter is than the administration does. As I’ve said many times, it was a mistake for the U.S. to intervene in Iraq and Syria last year. Congressional authorization obviously can’t fix that mistake, but it would legitimize what has thus far been an unauthorized and illegal military action.

If there were any chance that this or any other president would be expected to respect the limits included in a new authorization, passing a very narrowly-worded resolution might be the least bad option available, but we already know that presidents can get away with interpreting these resolutions as broadly as they want. We know that Congress isn’t going to cut off funds for a war that the president starts, and most members of Congress are more hostile to placing limits on a war than the president is. Any authorization that this Congress produces will probably make things worse by giving a stamp of approval to an open-ended and unrestricted war. If the war remains unauthorized, it could be easier to end U.S. involvement. Once it receives Congress’ approval, it is much more likely to continue on for many more years.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Why Congress Shouldn’t Authorize the War on ISIS"

#1 Comment By Country Lawyer On May 22, 2015 @ 11:57 am

Congress should not only not authorize use of US forces against ISIS, it should do the opposite. It should vote to end funding for any such use.

ISIS talks global and recruits foreign fighters, but it remains an almost entirely regional problem. Regional actors should solve it and pay for its solution. Our involvement has only encouraged profligate, dilatory or irresponsible behavior by the regional players.

Our overriding Middle Eastern interest is balance and order, yet our presence has been radically destabilizing. A decade of bloody failure shows that we lack the relevant knowledge and competencies. If we shut up and pulled out, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel and Egypt would be forced to sort things out among themselves.

#2 Comment By JohnG On May 22, 2015 @ 12:46 pm

The best long-term strategy for the fight against the Islamic State is to let ISIS show Sunni Arabs how good it is at governing.

This fight is (a) none of our business and (b) even if it were, we can’t win it directly, as this is the job of the above mentioned Sunni Arabs. End of story.

PS I dread the thought of the upcoming presidential debates in which a bunch of imbeciles will try to outdo each other in how “tough on ISIS” they would be if elected president. Plus ça change…

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 22, 2015 @ 1:30 pm

“Well. This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

#4 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On May 22, 2015 @ 1:38 pm

The unfortunate fact is that once Congress gives the President an army, there is very little it can do to keep him from using it as he sees fit. Presidents have been engaging in unauthorized military interventions since Jefferson sent the Marines to the shores of Tripoli. The difference is the scale. The reason declarations of war were used up to WWII and not since is that up to WWII the President did not have a large enough army to fight a war on a large scale before WWII. Since WWII he has had a large enough army to wage large-scale wars without the consent of Congress and has regularly done so.

The only way to keep the President from waging unauthorized war is to take away his army. What is really scary is the rise of “defense contractor” that make it possible for the President to wage wars on a larger scale than we have the army to fight.

#5 Comment By steve in ohio On May 22, 2015 @ 2:22 pm

“Well. this is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

The Three Stooges come more to mind than Laurel and Hardy. Moe needs to slap and poke the eyes of every warmonger.

#6 Comment By cdugga On May 22, 2015 @ 5:58 pm

And the reasons are: Well, we don’t want unnecessary wars of course. Can’t really say how necessary it is to blow up ISIL but it sounds like a good idea and a decent kind of minimal risk live fire exercise for honing our pilots skills with what we have, and for developing what we need to improve effectiveness. A static target out on the range is not as good as one running around with bad guys in it, and with the bonus that the equipment may be the same stuff we gave the iraqi’s. Was not long ago that ISIL dug a tunnel over a mile long under iraqi army headquarters and blew a bunch of them up. If they were not ghost soldiers then, they are now. So placing bets on the iraqi army winning this might require a substantial 3 or 4 to one odds. I am not seeing the down side to blowing up ISIL. It might be nice to have the regional guys do it like you say, but then we would not get all the practice. We have the best armed forces in the world. The central reason for that is that they are never out of shape even if the administrative officer ranks are bloated. Wonder how much it costs to get rid of each ISIL? We could just move that cost over to pilot training costs and walah, the cost is practically nothing beyond the additional deployment costs. Think I am joking? Maybe not. But it is the friday funnies.

#7 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 22, 2015 @ 9:33 pm

“The Three Stooges come more to mind than Laurel and Hardy.”

Keystone Cops . . .

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 22, 2015 @ 9:35 pm

“The Three Stooges come more to mind than Laurel and Hardy.”

Keystone Cops . . .

. . . with Rowan and Martin’s Laughin.

And while I am not opposed intervention

Iraq and Afghanistan as invasions – not so smart

#9 Comment By Junior On May 23, 2015 @ 12:18 am

@EliteCommInc. & steve in ohio

“Ohhh, coupla wise guys ay?” 🙂

I agree with Mr. Larison that this authorization is just going to embolden Obama to escalate. It is unbelievable to me that people don’t include this request from Obama for authorization to invade Syria in discussions of whether or not our leaders learned anything from the Iraq war and are willing to repeat the same mistakes again. I think it shows that CLEARLY they did not learn. But everyone just says “Oh its Obama he’s a democrat so he’s not REALLY going to send in troops.” Nonsense. So then WHY did he ask for permission to do it?

#10 Comment By Junior On May 23, 2015 @ 12:47 am

It’s all a part of the war agenda that every one of our Presidents have been carrying out for the last 3 decades. Obama is just setting it up for the next President, whomever that is, to make it easier to go to war wherever it is that the new boogeyman “ISIS” conveniently turns up next.

#11 Comment By Junior On May 23, 2015 @ 2:43 pm

Can anyone please explain to me how this authorization request from Obama is any different from Bush’s authorization request from before the Iraq war?

Bush claimed that it was for leverage at the UN, but then next thing we know…BOOM full blown war in Iraq. Obama claims that this is to “provide adequate oversight” or “clearly articulate the long-term strategy for the fight against the Islamic State”, but then next thing we’ll know…

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 23, 2015 @ 3:05 pm

“But everyone just says “Oh its Obama he’s a democrat so he’s not REALLY going to send in troops.” ”

I am watching a movie called,”Good Kill.”

I am to over reacting to ISIS (more complex than I care to get into here). But it is unlikely that we are ever going to win a war using drones and or just airstrikes.

I think your concern is valid.

#13 Comment By KJL On May 23, 2015 @ 6:57 pm

Obama is going to continue to take military action against ISIS regardless of any authorization. If Congress does pass an authorization we can at least maintain the fiction that Congress has any say in it in the first place.

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 23, 2015 @ 10:46 pm


I think there is too much over reacting to ISIS (more complex than I care to get into here). But it is unlikely that we are ever going to win a war using drones and or just airstrikes.

My comments about ISIS?ISIL usually are treated as excuse that I support them. I tend to see them as a reaction to the whole sale decimation being viisted on Sunnis by Shia from Iraq, Iran, Jordo, and elsewhere.

Because in overseaing the reestablishment of governig body — we stood by as Shia did as they pleased.

And in my view the Sunnis have every right to dfend themselves.

Unless is a threat to the US, I am not sure it’s our busiess.


Just to be clear, regardless of who gets miffed. My Rowan and Martin comments apply to recent events. In their time, I consider funny, but largely wrong.