How Obama Should Declare War on Islamic State

The U.S. president doesn't need Congress' approval to declare war on the Islamic militants – but it would give him a stronger hand, not only in respect of the enemy, but also at home.

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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Shi'ite fighters who have joined the Iraqi army to fight against militants of the Islamic State take part in field training in Najaf, August 23, 2014.
Shi'ite fighters who have joined the Iraqi army to fight against militants of the Islamic State take part in field training in Najaf, August 23, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

The big question right now is whether U.S. President Barack Obama ought to go to Congress to ask for a declaration of war. That would be a declaration against the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). One might think that this is a moot question; it was only a year and a half ago that the New York Times ran its editorial calling for Congress to step in and repeal the authorization to use military force in the war on terror, which was passed in 2001. Congress, which is smarter than the Times, chose not to do so. Ergo, the authorization to use military force is still in effect.

Well, nothing is ever so clear in that no-man’s-land between the White House and Congress. There is a faction that reckons no proper war declaration was ever made in the first place. This has included both right-wing sages like, say, ex-congressman Ron Paul, and left-wing sages, like, say, the ex-governor of New York, Mario Cuomo. They have argued that because the authorization to use military force lacks the constitutional phrase “declare war,” said authorization is a dead letter. Plus, the AUMF was about Al-Qaida and the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Now, the thinking goes, we’re in something new. So there are those who are already insisting that before American warplanes wheel into the skies over Syria and before any but a handful of American GIs appear in arms against Islamic State, President Obama will need to go before Congress. The solons, moreover, may well be reluctant. We caught a glimpse of this when President Obama and Vice President Biden were threatening to take military action against Syria after it used chemical weapons. Congress made it clear then that it would balk.

It’s not so clear that Congress would balk in the case of Islamic State. The enemy’s filming of its own mass-murders, its beheading of an American citizen, James Foley, its vows to take the war to the White House: These are events that are awakening politicians. U.S. Secretary of Defense Hagel is warning that Islamic State represents a threat “beyond anything we’ve seen.” The top American general, Martin Dempsey, is warning of the need to defeat Islamic State's “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision.” But it is clear that it is going to take leadership from the president.

This is going to be an important test for President Obama. He could try to get away with using the authorization for military force passed in 2002 for the Iraq war; but he famously opposed that authority. In 2011, he eschewed any bow to Congress in respect of the air campaign that led to the destruction of Colonel Muammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya. I thought that was a mistake. It’s not that the Constitution requires a war declaration, but rather that a declaration is the best foundation for a sustained commitment to a war. It gives any president a stronger hand, not only in respect of the enemy but also at home.

Plus it would close the circle in a debate here at home that has divided the left and right. Back in the Cold War, it was the conservatives, including myself, who were prepared to rely on presidential authority alone (particularly when there was a president like Ronald Reagan who seemed have such a clear vision of what he was doing). It was the liberals who were agitating for laws like, say, the War Powers Act of 1973. That unconstitutional mish-mash, which is still technically on the books, purports to force a retreat within 60 days of the start of combat, absent authorization by Congress.

That’s not a fight in which one is going to want to have with Congress part way through a war on Islamic State. The other day, the National Journal issued a piece remarking on the fact that among those wanting Obama to go to Congress for a proper declaration are “a centrist Democrat, a Republican hawk, a libertarian, and a tea partier.” It was referring to Senators Tim Kaine, James Inhofe, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz, who, as it put it, “all believe the White House should seek new approval from Congress for U.S. military operations in Iraq.” One thing that can be said for their argument is that if the Congress says “no,” we’ll know whom to blame.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun www.nysun.com. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.

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