Declaring war has become complicated since World War II. On Dec. 8, 1941, Congress — and America — declared war on Japan. It was just a day after their attack on Pearl Harbor. International challenges have not gone away since then, but World War II was the last time our nation declared war. Since then, there have been authorizations to use military force (as in Vietnam and Iraq); other times, Congress has funded U.N. military missions (as in the Persian Gulf in 1990 and Bosnia). Sometimes there's no nation to declare war against; other times Congress has simply punted to the president. As a result, by one count there have been more than 120 military actions undertaken by presidents with no prior congressional consent.
That's the backdrop for our current struggle over whether to grant President Obama the power to prosecute war or military action or whatever you want to call it against ISIS. The president has already been directing our warplanes to attack terrorists in Iraq and Syria who identify themselves as ISIS; he recently asked for formal permission going forward. Congress can't seem to give him an answer.
Some in Congress say his request is too open-ended and ill-defined; others say it should be completely open-ended. A few just don't want to give Obama anything. A stalemate has ensued.
American history shows that any use-of-force authorization should have limits. In the case of Japan and Germany, once those nations surrendered, the war was over. But consider the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed the Vietnam War to start in earnest. It was so open-ended and ill-defined, it allowed a questionable mission to grow into a quagmire; when Congress finally revoked it in 1971, the war went on for four more years. Then there's the authorization of military force against terrorists, passed on Sept. 14, 2001; this one's still in effect and empowers Obama's strikes against ISIS. But over time, it's been cited as the legal basis for everything from Guantanamo Bay to the NSA spying on Americans. It's been a blank check.
Doing nothing is not an option. ISIS is not a nation — it is an ideology, like Nazism. Allowed to grow, it could upset the global order; already it possesses lands the size of the United Kingdom, with 8 million people under its control. Now, like Germany, ISIS has opened up a second front, having terrorized fellow Muslims in Jordan and Egypt. This menace can be stopped, but the world must act.
If Congress fails to do anything with Obama's request, he will certainly continue to send airstrikes. But our allies would be right to question America's resolve. ♦