Obama’s Plan for Military Action Requires Congressional Checks and Balances
Buried in the data from the much-hyped CNN poll that suggested Americans were “alarmed” by the actions of the the ISIL, and that they feel “increasingly concerned” that ISIL could pose a threat to the United States, were two key details:
1. Americans want limits placed on the US military response to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and to the broader political challenges that have developed in those countries. For instance, a majority of Americans, 61 percent of Americans oppose placing US troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
2. More than 70 percent of Americans believe that President Obama should seek congressional authorization for military strikes against ISIL.
Amid all the “alarm” and “concern,” the American people remain wary about any rush to war, and they believe that Congress—not just the president—should have a say with regard to expansion of military action. And make no mistake, what President Obama described in his speech to the nation Wednesday night was a dramatic expansion of US military involvement and action in Iraq and Syria.
As Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-California, said in a statement after hearing the president’s proposals, “The facts are clear. We are no longer talking about limited strikes to prevent genocide and protect U.S. personnel. We are talking about sustained bombing and the use of military force.”
The president seemed to recognize the war wariness—and the war weariness—of the American people. Though he outlined plans for US involvment in a broad effort to “degrade and destroy and ultimately destroy ISIL,” Obama told the nation in a speech Wednesday night:
I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our partner forces on the ground.
Yet the initiative the president outlined was one of offensive warmaking in Iraq and Syria, with the United States taking the lead in mobilizing “a broad coalition of partners” for military action “to drive these terrorists from their lands.” This military action will involve not just “a systematic campaign of airstrikes” but the deployment of an additional 475 US troops “to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.” According to CNN, that brings the total number of US soldiers on the ground in Iraq to roughly 1,700.
Even as he described a dramatic increase in US military involvement in the region, the president avoided asking for the congressional consultation that is required by a US Constitution that explicitly affords Congress the power “to declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water.”
Rather, Obama announced, “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.”
Translation: Obama is not inclined to seek the congressional advice and consent that is imagined and intended by the Constitution.
Congressman Jim McDermott, D-Washington, described the “I welcome congressional support” line as “really kind of condescending.”
The question now is whether Congress will assert its clear authority as a co-equal branch of government to debate and vote on plans for war and, through the power of the purse, to define the scope and character of warmaking.
That assertion is unlikely to come from congressional leaders. And many House and Senate Democrats were quick to express support for the president’s plans, while some Republicans argued that he should go further.
But a number of members of House and Senate continue to voice concerns about the lack of definition for the new initiative, and about the lack of clear congressional authorization for military action.
Senator Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, responded to Obama’s remarks by expressing respect for the restraint she said the president had shown. But Baldwin added, “I remain concerned about the potential for open-ended U.S. military engagement in the Middle East.” Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, D-California, expressed “reservations about expanding airstrikes into Syria. Committing U.S. military involvement to a country that is undergoing a complicated and lengthy civil war has serious potential international implications.” Echoing Baldwin, Sanchez added, “I am concerned about the possibility of a protracted military campaign that might put American troops in future danger.”
To address such concerns, Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats, says he is working with a bipartisan group of senators to draft a resolution defining the president’s authority. Unlike the open-ended authorizations given President George Bush in 2001 and 2002, King told The Washington Post, “I think that we should be talking about something that is much more limited. For example, in duration or defining who the enemy is.”
King said there should be a congressional debate before the November election. “We have a constitutional responsibility to be engaged in this,” he argued. ”I’m frustrated by Congress’s propensity to criticize and not make decisions. This is an opportunity where we should engage in this. I think it strengthens the country if we do so.”
Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, was blunter: “The Constitution is very clear. The power to declare war resides in Congress. If we are to go to war, Congress must approve.”
That is the view that Congresswoman Lee has long held, and she restated it strongly on Wednesday night, saying, “The Constitution requires Congress to vote on the use of military force. This is not about this President. This is about any President and any Congress. We must re-establish the checks and balances laid out by the Constitution.”
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, joined Lee in asking for immediate debate. “Congress must weigh in when it comes to confronting ISIL through military action,” they said. “The voices of the American people must be heard during a full and robust debate in Congress on the use of military force. Speaker Boehner should put legislation authorizing military action on the floor of the House of Representatives before Congress leaves for the upcoming district work period.”
Appearing on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes Wednesday night, House Armed Services Committee member John Garamendi, D-California, declared, “This is about war and this is a very serious matter. Mr. President come to Congress and get your authorization.”
In a statement earlier Wednesday, Garamendi pointed out that “the U.S. Constitution and War Powers Resolution are clear: Congress is obligated to weigh in on extended U.S. military actions. No matter how noble the cause, no matter how just the engagement, Congress’ voice and vote are required within a 60-90 day window.”
Garamendi’s office reports that “the 60-day window in our military campaign against ISIL ends on October 7th, although the precise date is subject to some interpretation.”
While the congressman says “our current limited air strikes and special operations missions against the Islamic State have a clear purpose and are narrow and targeted in scope,” he explains that “it’s incumbent on Congress to vote on that strategy if it involves military action. To do otherwise ignores our Constitutionally-required duty. The people we represent and our brave men and women in uniform deserve better than that. They deserve a vote.”
Garamendi’s sentiments are shared by activists.
Democracy for America, the group formed by backers of Howard Dean’s antiwar presidential campaign of 2004 was pointed in its call for a vote. Even as he decried ISIL as “a collection of brutal barbarians who threaten the stability of the Middle East,” DFA’s Neil Sroka said, “We remain deeply troubled by any plan for U.S. military engagement that has not been explicitly debated by the American people and voted on by Congress.”
“While regional leaders and the global community must respond to ISIS’s growing list of atrocities,” Sroka explained in his statement, “after more than a decade of war, the American people and their representatives in Congress must have a calm, rational public debate of that response and the appropriate level of U.S. involvement.”
That debate, argued the national group Peace Action, should weigh the wisdom of the military response that Obama has proposed. “We agree with the president that there is no military solution to the problems posed by [ISIL],” said Peace Action executive director Kevin Martin. “And yet his proposed strategy relies far too heavily on the use of military force. It’s time to stop the bombing and escalation and use the other tools of U.S. foreign policy—working with allies in cutting off weapons, oil and funding streams for starters—which will be much more active in dealing with [ISIL].”
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