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Why Congress Shouldn’t Authorize the War on ISIS

If the war remains unauthorized, it could be easier to end U.S. involvement.

The New York Times calls 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, 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. 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.



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