George Orwell wrote that political language is designed “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” That was 1946. If only he could witness the deterioration of political discourse in the age of the 24-hour news cycle.
Sixty-eight years after Orwell lamented the decline of political writing, it is clear that the area where it applies most is war. As George Will noted last week, the last time Congress and an American President declared war was 1942 – when the declaration clarified that Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria were Axis countries aligned with Hitler.
Article I, Section 8, clause 11 of the Constitution specifies that only Congress shall have the power “to declare war.” As James Madison explained, “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war to the Legislature.”
Yet, in our history, Congress has declared only five “wars” – the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II.
Korea? Not a war.
Vietnam? Not a war.
Grenada and Panama? Definitely not wars.
Iraq I, Afghanistan, and Iraq II? Not wars either.
And so it apparently will be with what President Obama has called our “campaign to degrade and destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” To date, this “campaign to degrade and destroy” has consisted of daily airstrikes, support for Kurdish and Iraqi troops fighting on the ground, and despite President Obama’s statements to the contrary, it may eventually lead to American troops in the region.
In the Orwellian era, government avoids calling things what they really are, so instead of “declarations of war,” we get “authorizations for use of military force” consistent with the War Power Resolution. This constitutionally-controversial law permits a president to engage military actions overseas in the event of a national emergency, and, more importantly, if Congress does not ratify the action within sixty days, the President must wind-down the action within thirty days.
This “campaign” started in earnest on August 7 when President Obama authorized airstrikes in response to attempted genocide of the Yazidis in northern Iraq. Under the War Powers Resolution, the sixty day clock for Congressional authorization runs out on October 6 and all military actions must cease by November 5.
In a letter to Congress, President Obama claims he does not need a new authorization because he’s acting within the scope of authorized actions against al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The first, Public Law 107-40, passed shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 authorizes action against “those nations, organizations, or persons” who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks” on September 11, 2001, or those who “harbored such organizations or persons.” The second, Public Law 107-243, authorized action to “defend the national security of the United States against the continued threat posed by Iraq.”
Obama’s claims are farcical and resemble the “War with Oceania” from Orwell’s 1984 more than truth. ISIL is not al-Qaeda. Nor did ISIL exist in 2001 to plan, authorize, commit, aid, or harbor those involved in the terrorist attacks. And, unlike Iraq, ISIL is not a state – more like a savage cult – its goal is to dismantle Iraq, en route to establishing a global caliphate.
Obama’s invocation of the Iraq war authorization is worse. As ISIL stormed across the middle of Iraq in June and July of this year, the Obama administration sought to repeal the Iraq authorization. On July 25, more than a month after ISIL had captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and taken Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice wrote a letter to House Speaker John Boehner informing him that the president continued to “take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region, and American interests,” but that the Iraq authorization was “no longer used for any U.S. government activities and the Administration fully supports its repeal.”
But inconsistency and shocking lack of foresight by President Obama aside, the more profound long-term problem caused by the lack of congressional authority lies as much with Congress as it does the president. As Madison wrote, it’s expected that “the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war,” and that presidents will push the boundaries of war-making power. That’s why we have checks-and-balances. Just as we expect that presidents will push, so too do we count on Congress to defend its own constitutional powers. But just the opposite is happening now.
Congress has a choice: it can either meet its constitutional mandate and vote on whether to authorize continued action against ISIL; or, it can accede to President Obama and claims to “forever war” from future presidents.
Congress has made its choice clear. It will punt. Why? Because Senate Democrats fear that a war vote will dampen liberal enthusiasm in the November elections. Instead of taking responsibility and acting swiftly to an emerging threat, Senate Democrats disclosed last week that they will wait until after the election. That’s not to suggest Republican leaders are clamoring for constitutional responsibility. When asked whether Congress should return to Washington to vote a new authorization, Speaker John Boehner’s office deferred to the White House. With a few notable exceptions (Sen. Tim Kaine D-Va, Sen. John Cornyn R-Tx, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md), Congress instead seems content to merely fund the training of Syrian rebels. This half-measure is constitutionally insufficient for action to continue. Not even close.
Congress, in these twisted political times, won’t call it what it is – and vote to authorize war. But the American people and the Constitution deserve better than the “Politics of the Next Six Weeks” mindset that paralyzes Washington. The responsible, constitutional action would be to immediately authorize further military strikes for a specified period of time.
If we do not act now, ISIL will further expand and threaten genocide against Kurds, Christians, and moderate Muslims in the surrounding region. At the very least, continued airstrikes and robust support, weapons, and training for Kurdish, Iraqi, and non-terrorist Syrian rebels (if such exists) should be authorized.
“Boots on the ground” is a more difficult question – the answer to which depends on facts and military options on what may work. Make no mistake, we’re dealing with evil incarnate. War to decimate ISIL is just – even Pope Francis seems to agree. But ISIL apparently wants American troops fighting on their turf. Is it smart to put American boots on the ground? Is there any other realistic chance that the Kurds, Iraqis, and non-terrorist Syrians can retake captured areas? If not, is the American public ready for staged beheadings of captured American soldiers in uniform? Because that’s one of the likely consequences of committing significant ground troops to fight ISIL.
Unfortunately, that debate may never happen in Congress. In place of duty and guts, Congress has given the American people politics as usual. We can only hope that this is a one-time aberration, but in the era of Twitter and the 24 hour news cycle, it’s more likely just a sign of things to come.