On Wednesday night, President Obama outlined his strategy for dealing with ISIS. It's a strategy centered around airstrikes and assisting ISIS' numerous enemies.
The proposal itself could be worse. But the important thing is for Congress to get its act together and hold a vote on what it thinks should happen. Speaker of the House John Boehner says he supports the president's plan and that there will be a vote soon, though there is no word yet what will be approved or when.
This is a good sign at least. For far too long, the president has had a completely free hand to wield American force abroad. It's time for the legislative branch to start fulfilling its constitutional duty.
On a cold-blooded tactical level, the president's strategy is about half reasonable and half highly questionable. In Iraq, assisting the Kurds and the Iraqi government with money and airstrikes on ISIS targets stands a decent chance of succeeding at weakening the group, especially because it has no industry and can't manufacture its own weapons (though the irony that we'd be largely blowing up American equipment shouldn't be overlooked).
However, the Syria policy is a mess. There, we supposedly want to support moderate Syrian rebels so we don't end up helping the Assad regime. But defeating Assad's most formidable opponent would necessarily help him because moderate rebels have almost no chance of taking over. (Almost the whole top leadership of one of the most prominent Syrian non-ISIS rebels was assassinated yesterday.) Ultimately, any arms we provide to Syrian rebels run a very high risk of ending up in the hands of ISIS, Assad forces, or al Qaeda, which is also operating there. That's probably why even our most reliable ally, Great Britain, has indicated it won't have anything to do with Syria.
If it were up to me, I wouldn't go beyond logistical and humanitarian assistance, and I would above all stay the heck out of Syria. If we're looking for more options, as Murtaza Hussein suggests, this is still a great opportunity to normalize relations with Iran, which has the most competent military in the region and has already defeated ISIS forces in a straight fight.
Of course, it isn't up to me, which brings us to U.S. politics.
In his speech, the president said, "I have the authority to address the threat" from ISIS. As has become clear, the Obama administration has basically embraced the hugely expansive Bush reading of the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (passed after 9/11), saying it is all the legislation needed to wage an indefinite campaign against ISIS. As Hayes Brown explains, this is extremely legally questionable, given the fact that ISIS is now feuding bitterly with al Qaeda, the original target of the AUMF.
However, the president also requested action from Congress, saying, "I again call on Congress to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters." One could view this as a cynical request for a congressional rubber stamp on something Obama was going to do anyway, which is true, but the deeper truth is that congressional dysfunction is the only reason he can get away with such tendentious legislative misreadings. A Congress that gave a whit about protecting its power and prerogatives would pass some new laws and almost certainly win any sort of legal battle over the interpretation thereof.
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said something a few days ago that was laudably honest:
It's an election year. A lot of Democrats don't know how it would play in their party, and Republicans don't want to change anything. We like the path we're on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long. [Kingston via The New York Times]
Rep. Kingston supports a vote, but the bone-deep cynicism he referenced is part of what has made Congress such a lousy institution of late. What he basically says is that most Democrats are cowards, and most Republicans would prefer to avoid any responsibility and just blame the president regardless of what happens. Sounds about right.
But it's also despicable and, frankly, unpatriotic. Congress needs to step up and fulfill its constitutional duty. Our representatives are supposed to be the ones who declare war and appropriate money. Multiple members of Congress have all but peed themselves in public yowling about how terrible ISIS is.
If, as Dianne Feinstein says, the group is the worst threat that has ever existed or could ever exist, then she and other congressional Chicken Littles owe the American people a detailed explanation why and a vote. Ideally, it would be one that repealed the extraordinarily vague AUMF and replaced it with a list of specific objectives, what the president would be allowed to do to achieve them, and critically what he would not be allowed to do. That would have the side benefit of avoiding the mission creep that is easily imaginable under an open-ended authority. To quote Duncan Black: "Congress sucks, but they're the democracy part of our democracy."
It's time it started acting like it.