Obama Takes The War To Congress

Literally. Laying out his agenda for Congress’s lame duck session yesterday, Obama announced that he would finally ask for a new AUMF to cover the ongoing war against ISIS:

He said the goal was to update an authorization narrowly tailored to the fight against al-Qaida to be more applicable to the current mission against IS extremists in Iraq and Syria. “It makes sense to make sure the authorization from Congress reflects what we perceive to be not just our strategy over the next two or three months, but our strategy going forward,” Obama said. The conversation was to start Friday, when Obama said he’d update congressional leaders about the fight against IS during an Oval Office meeting. Obama said he wanted the process of crafting the new authorization to start now, but that finalizing it could carry over into next year, when a new Congress will usher in GOP control of the Senate.

This is something that should clearly have been done long before now. The decision to go to war should never be punted until after national elections. Such a decision should precisely be made before elections so that voters have a better sense of what they’re voting for. But there I go again – insufficiently cynical to understand how Washington works these days.

Nonetheless, now it is going to the Congress, let’s have a debate. On this question particularly, the GOP needs to put up or shut up. They need to make an argument as to what their foreign policy would be. Let newly-elected Senator Tom Cotton make the explicit case for a renewed invasion of Iraq and a new war against Iran. Let them show us what further domestic programs will be cut to release the Pentagon from the sequester’s constrictions. Alternatively, let’s hear from those Republicans more leery of more war, and disdainful of further attempts to retain hegemony in the Middle East. Let’s see the divisions of the GOP on these questions laid bare – between fiscal hawks and defense aggressors, between neocons and libertarians and realists.

Again: why Obama didn’t force them to make this positive case before now is beyond me. It would have clarified a lot.

Juan Cole lists more pragmatic reasons why he thinks Obama is making this move now:

1. Obama may be trying to mollify Republicans so that they’ll cooperate with an extension of the aid program to train Syrian rebels, which runs out in December.

2. Obama is taking ISIL off the table as an issue during his last two years (and into the next presidential campaign) by this step. If the GOP Congress gives him the authorization, they will bear the blame if anything goes wrong. If they refuse, then everything that goes wrong will be their fault.

3. If they vote for an authorization for the use of military force, the GOP Congress won’t easily be able to blackmail Obama by threatening to withhold funding for the military effort against ISIL unless he gives in on some issue.

But, like me, Jens David Ohlin has no idea why he waited until after the elections:

If he had sought authorization before the election and received it, this would have strengthened his image as a foreign policy president dealing with the most pressing and emerging threats. Furthermore, thinking of this as a “new” war helps his image. If it is viewed as an “old” war, he is open to criticism that the situation was caused by his failure to deal with the Iraq War appropriately. On the other hand, if Congress had denied him the authorization, he could have used that denial as a sword against the Republicans going into the mid-term elections.

I guess the Democrats believed that the “war on women” and never mentioning the economy’s success and the ACA was going to do all their work for them. For his part, Larison wishes Congress would vote it down, even though he knows they won’t:

At the very least, the debate over authorization should subject the administration’s policy to the kind of close scrutiny that it has so far escaped. Obama embarked on this open-ended intervention without debate or real consultation with our representatives. Meanwhile, gutless members of Congress from both parties have been more concerned to jump on the pro-war bandwagon or to demagogue the threat from ISIS than they have been to question the wisdom of the intervention and the likelihood of its success. Now is the time for Congress to debate whether the ostensible goal of the intervention is even possible at an acceptable cost, and if it isn’t the president and Congressional leaders should be prepared to acknowledge that the intervention can’t succeed on its own terms.

But if there’s one thing we know about Washington’s debate about these questions: no one ever wants to ask whether what we want to do is even doable. No one wants to concede that the Iraq intervention was a catastrophe from which we have still not recovered. No one wants to point out that Pentagon spending is not compatible with a saner fiscal future. No one wants to point out that American power is on the wane, that intervention is becoming progressively less legitimate, and that the sensible response is to retrench. In fact, in a Clintons vs Republicans death match, both will be angling for the crown of intervener-in-chief – and the cost and feasibility of intervention will scarcely be on the table.