"A Fearful Congress Sits Out the War Against ISIS” is the headline over the New York Times editorial Sunday. It complains about “a $58.7 billion budget line that will allow the Pentagon to continue fighting the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria.” It’s unhappy that it may be “as close as Congress comes to authorizing war against the Islamic State for the foreseeable future.” So has the Times suddenly molted into a hawk? Alas, no. It worries that Congress might fail to put limits on America’s involvement in the war.
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Franz Kafka, call your office. George Orwell, call yours. Kafka imagined the most bizarre and maddening situations in politics. Orwell described a world in which political language meant the opposite of its plain meaning. What would they make of the Times warning of a “fearful Congress” sitting out the war that Congress is fully prepared to underwrite? When the Times calls for “authorizing war” against the Islamic state, it wants a bill that will limit the war to three years and bar ground troops.
President Barack Obama – thanks to George W. Bush and the Congress that acted after 9/11 – already has authority to fight the Islamic State. This is how we’re able to proceed to the degree that we have. It turns out to be not Congress that is fearful — but the Times, and the Democratic Party for which it speaks. They want Congress to set “clear parameters” for what the Times calls “the escalating conflict.” Most bizarrely of all, the commander-in-chief agrees. Obama himself wants the Congress to curb his powers.
This turn of events is a constitutional inversion. It is to Congress that the Constitution grants the war powers — the power to declare war, grant letters of marque, raise and support armies, provide and maintain a navy, punish piracies and offenses against the law of nations, and call forth and arm the militia. We don’t have to declare war to be at war (it can be launched against us). But once war is declared by Congress, the Constitution seems to authorize no way to end it without victory.
That is suggested by the fact that the parchment fails to delegate to Congress the power to make peace. A proposal was made at the constitutional convention in 1787 to grant Congress the peace-making power, but the Founders – no dummies, they – thought better of it. Hence, the American war declarations (there have been eight passed to declare five wars) are to the point. The declaration of World War II, passed after we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, took a mere 165 words.
It said that the “state of war between the United States and the Imperial Government of Japan which has thus been thrust upon the United States is hereby formally declared.” It not only “authorized” but “directed” the president to “employ the entire naval and military forces of the United States and the resources of the Government” to carry on the war. It said: “to bring the conflict to a successful termination, all the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States".
If Congress tried anything like that against the Islamic State, the New York Times would fall over in a dead faint. It worries that by failing to pass limits to the post-9/11 authorizations to use military force, lawmakers are “unwisely emboldening the executive branch to overstep its powers.” But Congress was unwilling to pass a resolution Obama sent it in February. It sensed a trap. It seems to have concluded that the 1973 War Powers Resolution, passed to reign in president Richard Nixon during Vietnam, was a mistake.
It’s easy to see why. Congress watched John Kerry lose the presidency in 2004 partly because he’d voted to defund our GIs after originally voting to authorize the war. It knows, too, that any declaration limiting the president’s authority to fight the war would inspirit our enemies. Hence the Orwellian language that has crept into the campaign to limit the war. What would have been the result if Congress had put a time limit on World War II? Does the fact that Congress went all in in 1941 mean that it, as the Times suggests of today’s Congress, was too “fearful” to step up?
Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was 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.