The Buzz

Time for Congress and the President to Work Together on ISIL

This past Sunday, September 7, President Barack Obama sat down for an exclusive interview with the new host of NBC’s Meet the Press, Chuck Todd.  If you happened to miss the interview, it’s worth a look: despite persistent questioning by Todd on the national security threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, President Obama laid out in succinct detail what he and his administration plan to do.  The “we don’t have a strategy yet” comment that the president made last week in a late summer press conference (remember the suit?) is clearly behind him, and regardless of what some commentators and newspaper editorials continue to say, the White House does in fact have a strategy: enlist the support of key Sunni Arab states in the effort, use targeted U.S. military force against ISIL’s bases and leadership, squeeze its financing by obstructing the donations the group receives from wealthy donors in the Gulf Arab states, and ensure that Washington’s European allies (principally Great Britain, France, and Germany) are actively contributing to the campaign. 

For a lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill (I’m not naming names), this strategy is far more multilateral and time-consuming than they would like.  Building an international “core coalition” of states to tackle ISIL from multiple directions is not as sexy as employing the U.S. Air Force to, as Senator Ted Cruz said recently, “bomb them [ISL] back to the stone age.”  President Obama, however, doesn’t seem to be phased by the criticism that he’s been receiving; he is scheduled to give a speech to the American people this Wednesday, September 10, to double-down on his approach to the ISIL problem while explaining to the American people precisely what the objectives are and what it will take to successfully meet them.

Yet there was one line of questioning in the interview that could potentially cause the president some trouble over the next two weeks as he rolls out the anti-ISIL strategy to the public: Obama appears to believe that it’s not necessary to come to Congress for an up-or-down vote before the first U.S. fighter-bombers and drones start striking ISIL targets in Syria. 

Asked by Todd whether he will be asking for Congress to vote on his policy during the short time the chamber is in session this month, the president implied that he has all the authority he needs his under Article II constitutional powers act kinetically.  “I’m confident that I’ve got the authorization that I need to protect the American people,” Obama said, “and I’m always going to do what’s necessary to protect the American people.”  Although President Obama remarked that it’s important for Congress to “buy-in” to his plan, he wasn’t exactly clear what “buy-in” means.

This comment will naturally rub some lawmakers the wrong way.  Inherent in the checks-and-balances system of the U.S. political system is the give-and-take between the executive and legislative branches, and this dialogue is no more important than on the eve of a new war or before the acceleration of U.S. military action in some corner of the world.  One of the most consistent talking points that the Obama administration uses during press briefings or news conferences is the “consulting with Congress” line.  White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest states is prone to saying that President Obama remains committed to consulting with members of Congress before big decisions are made.  The only problem, of course, is that ‘consulting’ could mean a lot of things; it’s difficult, for instance, to see how simply informing congressional leadership of what the White House plans to do is the same as lobbying for their support.

Congress has a tendency to kick tough problems down the road for later consideration, especially during a tough re-election year when everyone is trying to keep their jobs and stay in their seats.  Lawmakers are only scheduled to be in session for 12 days before they recess again for the October campaign season.  But at least on this question—the question of ISIL—some members are not using the short legislative calendar as an excuse to abdicate their responsibility on matters of war and peace.  There are currently four bills (filed by Representatives Wolf and Issa, and Senators Nelson and Inhofe) that would authorize the president to expand air operations against ISIL into Syria.  If Congress genuinely wants to become an integral part of the debate, they have legislation to work from.

Normally, the president sends a request to Congress to kick-start the entire process of crafting an AUMF (authorization to use military force).  If the White House doesn’t follow this precedent, it will be up to Congress to press the issue.  And if Congress does press the issue with a vote, the president should applaud its willingness to have a debate and act on an issue of such grave concern to U.S. national security. 

As Obama once said, “our democracy is stronger when the President and the people’s representatives stand together.”  That remark as said on August 31, 2013, when the president asked Congress to authorize the use of military force against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  Nothing today changes that assessment.