WASHINGTON – Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia says the question of whether Congress needs to authorize President Barack Obama’s declared war on Islamic State was settled by Thomas Jefferson when that president went after the Barbary pirates more than 200 years ago.
Jefferson, a founding father, dispatched ships to the Barbary Coast of North Africa as a protection force in 1801 because Muslim pirates were seizing American merchant vessels. He then declared that he was “unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense.”
Kaine, an Obama ally, dismisses the president’s claim that the post-Sept. 11 authorization of force against al-Qaida also gives him the power to go after Islamic State, which didn’t exist in 2001.
“The president is saying, ‘Now let’s go on the offense,' and he needs congressional authority to do that,” Kaine said.
As Kaine and Republicans such as Sen. Bob Corker note, there also are compelling policy and political reasons to get Congress’s approval. Dismantling and destroying the well-funded jihadist group that controls large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria won’t be easy or quick. As dysfunctional as Congress is, such dangerous ventures suffer when taken unilaterally.
Politicians on both sides would like to authorize money for training and personnel, then get out of town for the midterm elections.
Democrats want to avoid anything that puts the unpopular president front and center for weeks. Some Senate veterans remember being burned by the 2002 Iraq Resolution, which was based on flawed intelligence.
Conversely, many Republicans, eager for opportunities to criticize Obama, want to avoid a resolution that supports his policy. And they don’t want to expose the fissures between the Rand Paul and John McCain wings of their party on foreign policy.
Yet Republican national-security experts such as Stephen Hadley, a top adviser to President George W. Bush who has been critical of this administration’s policies, credit Obama for his decision to assemble a coalition of foreign allies and present a forceful case to the nation in a televised address last week.
“The speech was very good, and the president is showing real determination,” says Hadley, one of the foreign-policy experts who dined with Obama several days before the speech. “But this is going to take a long time, and there are critical questions.”
A serious-minded Senate – cynics would call that an oxymoron – should explore these questions, even if that means lawmakers will be inconvenienced by having to stay in Washington beyond the planned adjournment in the next two weeks.
Hadley says the president was wise not to set a deadline or timetable, but the public should be told that this operation won’t be over in weeks or months and also be given a sense of the costs.
Although there is a consensus that the new Iraqi government will be better than the regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a number of questions remain: how to make the country’s U.S.-trained military less likely to falter; what commitments of assistance have been made by other Sunni nations, especially Saudi Arabia; how to eliminate Islamic State’s extensive oil, banking and extortion funding. And will the president have to revisit his vow of no U.S. combat troops on the ground? What if special-operations and intelligence forces prove insufficient?
There’s the political billiards game with multiple side pockets. Two of the Sunni terrorists’ biggest enemies are Syria and Iran, both U.S. adversaries. How will these relations be affected?
Even a vigilant, skeptical Congress is no panacea. Immediately before the Iraq War, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar held a hearing in which retired Marine General Anthony Zinni and national-security scholar Anthony Cordesman laid waste to Vice President Dick Cheney’s promise of an easy invasion and peaceful aftermath. Few paid attention.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for congressional involvement is that lives will be lost, including those of Americans.
Kaine asked: “What moral right do we have to ask them to sacrifice their very lives if we’re not willing to do what is required of us?”
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was formerly the executive editor of Bloomberg News, directing coverage of the Washington bureau.