Congress, Obama avoid the issue

Wednesday's vote in the House of Commons to approve British airstrikes in Syria is a reminder that, 10 months after President Obama asked Congress to authorize the use of military force against ISIL, this country's elected representatives have yet to weigh in. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to prosecute — and escalate — a major military campaign under the legal authority granted by Congress more than a decade ago in response to dramatically different circumstances.

Britain and the U.S. have different political systems; the prime minister is himself a legislator and lacks the independent authority that our Constitution confers on the president. But although the president is commander in chief, it is Congress that has the constitutional authority to declare war. It's unconscionable that Congress has not voted up or down on the military campaign to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIL that Obama announced in September 2014.

Congress should be embarrassed to have ducked the issue. But the president is not blameless, either. When Obama told the nation that the U.S. would take military action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq, he asserted that he already had the authority to conduct such operations — though he added vaguely that he welcomed "congressional support."

It wasn't until February of this year that Obama sent Congress language for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). Even then, the urgency of that request has been undermined by the administration's insistence that the war against ISIL is justified under two long-ago congressional enactments. One is the 2001 AUMF empowering the president to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks" on 9 /11. The other is a 2002 resolution approving President George W. Bush's use of force against "the continuing threat posed by Iraq" — the Iraq ruled by Saddam Hussein, that is.

Because ISIL is an offshoot of Al-Qaida in Iraq, the case can (barely) be made that the 2001 resolution provides a legal basis for the current campaign. The notion that the 2002 resolution is applicable is laughable. (Obama's proposed AUMF would repeal the 2002 document but not the 2001 authorization, though he has pledged to work with Congress "to refine, and ultimately repeal," that authorization as well.)

This issue may sound procedural or legalistic, but without a new AUMF, the current campaign against ISIL lacks full political legitimacy. A new authorization is necessary, and it should do more than merely rubber-stamp whatever the president might decide to do in the future. Congress should debate the issue of mission creep and should think hard about whether the policies it authorizes will make a significant difference in the battle against ISIL.

It should also consider the fight against ISIL in the context of the future of the Assad regime in Syria. Finally, any AUMF should place limits on the duration and the geographical extent of the U.S. military effort and on the nature of U.S. involvement.