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"War on ISIS" Lacks Required Prior Approval of US Congress and Public

Author bio: 
Joseph M. Hoeffel

 Get Congress, public to OK war on ISIS

Op-Ed Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Wednesday, September 10, 2014

As President Obama develops his strategy to respond to the threat of the Islamic State, known as ISIS, he should not attempt to exercise American military power on his own. He needs to get Congress into the act and win the support of the American people as well.

We have been down this path before. Americans have always been willing to respond to a national crisis and defend liberty around the world. But a war-weary nation, scarred by the false pretenses leading to the Iraq war, is skeptical of renewed involvement. This president has a heavy burden of proof to persuade the country to go back to war in the Middle East.

The horrific beheadings of two American journalists by the Sunni radicals of the Islamic State demonstrate the threat posed by these terrorists. The Islamic State is well-funded, due to ransoms and robberies, and well-equipped, after capturing massive amounts of U.S. military equipment abandoned by the Iraqi army. They are brutal, murdering anyone with different religious views. They believe in nothing but their own power and self-righteousness. They demand the loyalty of all Muslims around the world.

America cannot serve as the policeman of the Muslim world. The president is building a coalition of Western European and Muslim nations to oppose the Islamic State. Muslim governments, both Sunni and Shiite, must step forward with troops and resources to protect themselves. Also important is the overdue effort to convince disaffected Sunni populations abused by the Shiite government of Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria that they have no future with the Sunni extremists of ISIS.

The president is also considering a military strategy. His stated goal is to "degrade and destroy" the Islamic State. His military advisers, civilian and uniformed, have built their case that these radicals threaten our national security. Some leaders in Congress are rattling sabers, saying it takes an army to stop an army, while others are expressing caution, not sure what to do. The public is leery, puzzled, and alarmed.

The only way for the president to pull Congress together and win the support of the American people is to call for a public vote by Congress to authorize any major combat operations against the Islamic State, including extended air strikes or the insertion of additional ground troops.

The president should publicly disclose any intelligence findings that would justify his call for the use of force, while protecting the sources of that intelligence and the methods of its collection. Our intelligence professionals want to keep everything a secret, but a skeptical public has the right to know what the intelligence judgments are that might lead us into preemptive war.

Clearly, the president can order the use of military power on his own to repel an imminent threat, retaliate against attack, supply allies, or collect intelligence. But he should not unilaterally commit the country to major combat operations.

Some will argue that no new congressional authorization is necessary because Congress already authorized war against terrorists in Afghanistan in 2001 and against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 2002.

The Afghanistan congressional resolution is not relevant for an attack in Iraq, where we are invited, or Syria, where we are not. The Iraq resolution is out of date and focused on weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.

The War Powers Act of 1973, passed as a result of the abuses of power during the Vietnam War, proclaims that "the collective judgment of both Congress and the president" will apply to the introduction of American forces into hostilities. The law limits the commander-in-chief to using armed force only after a declaration of war, a specific statutory authorization, or an attack upon the United States or its armed forces. While there is debate over the act's deadlines and reporting requirements, its principles are sound.

The president needs new congressional authority to engage in major combat operations in Iraq and Syria. Congress must exercise its collective judgment with the chief executive.

Relevant intelligence must be disclosed to justify any preemptive strikes. The public will send the soldiers, pay the costs, and mourn the dead. They ought to at least know why.