War without end

Congress should limit president’s war authority

Mar 30, 2015 by

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The U.S. military response to terrorism has not brought peace and stability to the Middle East but disintegration and disorder. The current enemy, the Islamic State, emerged from the Iraqi civil conflict, which the U.S. occupation ignited, and also from the Syrian civil war. One war has led to another.

Because the U.S. has launched more than 1,500 air strikes against the Islamic State since August, it might seem unimportant that the Obama administration has finally gotten around to asking Congress to authorize the use of military force against the terrorist group. But in fact, the request creates an opportunity for Congress to reassert its role in decisions about war and to rein in the power that two presidents have used to keep the U.S. continuously at war since 2001.

The battle against the Islamic State is being fought under two long-ago congressional authorizations: the 2001 mandate for a global war against al-Qaida and its affiliates, and the 2002 green light to invade Iraq. The president is asking for a three-year authorization of force against the Islamic State. His proposal also would end the 2002 Iraq war authorization and set limits on the use of ground forces. In theory, it would prevent the next president from claiming an open-ended mandate for war.

But critics of the war on terrorism observe that the proposal would expand the president’s war powers. It would grant permission to attack any group anywhere in the world that is deemed to be associated with the Islamic State. And it would leave intact the 2001 authorization that the president has used to wage war in ways that have extended far beyond its original intent.

Congress ought to reject President Obama’s request for new authority and also set a date for the 2001 war authorization to expire. This would push U.S. officials to step back from their war posture and seek negotiated solutions in cooperation with nations in the region. Political reconciliation between Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis should be a primary goal.

As David Cortright has observed in Sojourners, a demilitarized U.S. strategy would deprive the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, of a key recruiting tool: its ability “to portray itself as the victim and to claim that it is defending itself from Western attack. . . . Groups like ISIS thrive on war.”

After congressional hearings on March 11, the president’s request appeared likely to fail. Lawmakers were divided between those who thought it allowed too much war power and those who considered it too weak. The most probable outcome appeared to be no action at all — an impasse that sustains endless war and endless terrorism.

One member of Congress, Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida, summarized the futility of trying to wipe out terrorism by military force: “Of course we have the ability to go ahead and destroy ISIS — we could turn Iraq and Syria into molten glass. But that’s something that’s beneath us. That’s something that shows that the terrorists would have won, because, at that point, we would be them.”

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