Congress may, just may, finally take up a joint resolution authorizing President Obama to use military force against ISIS.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quietly introduced just such a measure on Wednesday, and with so little fanfare that the move surprised even his own colleagues:
When the National Journal asked Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn to comment on the fact that McConnell had introduced the resolution, he replied, “He did?”
Here’s the text of the operative part of the proposed authorization. The full resolution can be read here:
The President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force in order to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, its associated forces, organizations, and persons, and any successor organizations.
But look what’s missing here:
- There’s no expiration date for the authorization.
- There are no imposed geographical limitations in terms of authorized theater of operations.
- There’s no limitations imposed in terms of states, groups, or individuals who can be targeted militarily.
- And most importantly, there are no limits placed on the extent of military force that the president can employ, including as many American “boots-on-the-ground” as this, or any future president, thinks is necessary.
In short, under the McConnell proposal, this president, and his successors, will be authorized to use any level of force, anywhere in the world, for as long as he or she wants, so long as a link to ISIS can be asserted. It’s the 9/11 authorization all over again, just with the names changed.
As I wrote back in November, up until now the Obama Administration had been relying on that post-9/11 authorization to use force against Al Qaeda for the legal authority to drop bombs on ISIS and to assist local forces in Iraq and Syria, including with special forces units. And Congress, until now, had shown no appetite for putting itself on the hook by giving the president a new authorization, despite Obama’s explicit request for one back in February 2015.
So this new measure is a step in the right direction in terms of assigning real responsibility for policy toward ISIS and creating a framework of accountability for its outcome. All of which is why its not likely to make any real difference.
Because one thing that we have long known is that Congress really doesn’t like having to answer for military operations. If they authorize something and it goes disastrously wrong they don’t want the blame. If they tie the president’s hands by refusing to authorize and something catastrophic happens later, they don’t want to have to explain that either.
Congress wants to be able to hold presidents accountable for how they use military force, but doesn’t want to take responsibility itself. From Congress’ perspective it’s just easier, and safer, to let the president go his own way so that they can cheerlead or snipe as they see fit and as the political winds blow.
So it is unsurprising that McConnell, having introduced a joint resolution, seems in absolutely no hurry to schedule a vote. The Atlantic report cited at the top of this post sums the situation up nicely:
The president’s undeclared war on ISIS puts Republicans in an awkward spot. GOP leaders don’t want to look as though they have ceded authority, a perception Republicans risk if they fail to act as a check on the administration’s power to deploy military force. But if Congress does authorize military force, such an action might be construed as a stamp of approval for the president’s broader foreign-policy objectives, making it harder for the GOP to credibly level criticism against the administration as it fights the Islamic State.
For now, McConnell can point to the resolution as evidence that Republicans are working to hold the president accountable, and perhaps convince the administration to take a harder-line in the fight against ISIS. The measure also gives the majority leader a chance to paint a picture of a more assertive brand of Republican foreign policy compared to a more constrained approach from the administration.