Why Washington Should Declare War on ISIS

The terrorist group has a bigger sanctuary, far more money, and is more indiscriminately murderous than al-Qaida was on Sept. 10, 2001.

Kashmiri demonstrators hold up a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a demonstration against Israeli military operations in Gaza, in downtown Srinagar on July 18, 2014.
National Journal
Aug. 20, 2014, 10:52 a.m.

When a cent­rist Demo­crat, a Re­pub­lic­an hawk, a liber­tari­an, and a tea parti­er all find com­mon ground on Cap­it­ol Hill, it’s worth not­ing this rare out­break of bi­par­tis­an con­sensus. Sens. Tim Kaine, James In­hofe, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz all be­lieve the White House should seek new ap­prov­al from Con­gress for U.S. mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions in Ir­aq. Pres­id­ent Obama should give the sen­at­ors ex­actly what they are re­quest­ing.

As Obama said dur­ing a press con­fer­ence earli­er this week, the ad­min­is­tra­tion is already closely con­sult­ing Con­gress on the Ir­aq crisis, be­cause when con­front­ing a threat like the Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia, the United States needs to show a united front. IS­IS’s bru­tal ex­e­cu­tion of Amer­ic­an journ­al­ist James Fo­ley is just the latest at­ro­city that has cla­ri­fied the grow­ing threat posed by what is ar­gu­ably the most power­ful ter­ror­ist group in his­tory.

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“The United States of Amer­ica will con­tin­ue to do what we must do to pro­tect our people. We will be vi­gil­ant and we will be re­lent­less. When people harm Amer­ic­ans any­where, we do what’s ne­ces­sary to see that justice is done and we act against ISIL, stand­ing along­side oth­ers,” Obama said this morn­ing in com­ments about Fo­ley’s ex­e­cu­tion. Even as he spoke, Pentagon of­fi­cials con­firmed that they are con­tem­plat­ing send­ing ad­di­tion­al U.S. troops to Ir­aq, to help se­cure Bagh­dad. “From gov­ern­ments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a com­mon ef­fort to ex­tract this can­cer so that it does not spread,” Obama said.

And yet act­ing un­der ex­ist­ing au­thor­it­ies in Ir­aq, the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse to the spread of the IS­IS can­cer has so far been re­act­ive and piece­meal, con­stantly ced­ing the ini­ti­at­ive to the IS­IS ex­trem­ists. When ex­plain­ing U.S. air­strikes that en­abled Ir­aqi and Kur­d­ish forces to re­cap­ture the Mo­sul Dam in his press con­fer­ence, for in­stance, Obama said he was act­ing to pro­tect U.S. per­son­nel in the Bagh­dad em­bassy hun­dreds of miles away. Really? Such tor­tured ex­plan­a­tions of the lo­gic be­hind the use of U.S. mil­it­ary force may com­port with the com­mand­er in chief’s con­sti­tu­tion­al au­thor­ity to pro­tect Amer­ic­an cit­izens. They sound an un­cer­tain trum­pet to al­lies in the re­gion, however, who are des­per­ate for U.S. lead­er­ship.

The resig­na­tion of Prime Min­is­ter Nuri al-Ma­liki rep­res­ents a vic­tory for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, and it should be ex­ploited. Throughout the crisis seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials rightly in­sisted that in­creased U.S. as­sist­ance would be con­tin­gent on the form­a­tion of a na­tion­al unity gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad that did not in­clude the di­vis­ive Shiite strong­man. Now that Ma­liki is out of the way, Pres­id­ent Obama has to de­cide on the quant­ity and qual­ity of that as­sist­ance.

To have any hope of hold­ing Ir­aq to­geth­er, and mak­ing good on Pres­id­ent Obama’s prom­ise this week to “pur­sue a long-term strategy to turn the tide against [IS­IS],” U.S. mil­it­ary sup­port to the Ir­aqi Se­cur­ity Forces will have to be sig­ni­fic­ant. Put simply, the ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to ar­tic­u­late a strategy for Ir­aq, and settle on a plan for ex­ecut­ing it that is backed at home and un­der­stood in Ir­aq and the re­gion.

Some con­gres­sion­al lead­ers want a say in such an im­port­ant de­cision, and they have a point. Wash­ing­ton is over­due for a ser­i­ous de­bate about what U.S. na­tion­al in­terests are threatened by the Ir­aq crisis. Far bet­ter for law­makers to de­bate the stakes in­volved in Ir­aq now, and to put down a mark­er, rather than duck­ing the is­sue and heap­ing end­less cri­ti­cism on the ad­min­is­tra­tion for “mis­sion creep,” “uni­lat­er­al­ism,” and pres­id­en­tial “im­per­i­al­ism.” That is a pre­scrip­tion for con­tin­ued ad­min­is­tra­tion tent­at­ive­ness and the kind of feck­less lead­er­ship for which Wash­ing­ton, un­for­tu­nately, is gain­ing a glob­al repu­ta­tion.

“This is not about an im­per­i­al pres­id­ency. It’s about a Con­gress that’s re­luct­ant to cast tough votes on U.S. mil­it­ary ac­tion,” Kaine, the Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat, told The New York Times this week. “We should not be put­ting Amer­ic­an men and wo­men’s lives at risk if we are not will­ing to do the polit­ic­al work to reach a con­sensus that it’s ne­ces­sary.”

“I’ve long be­lieved that our power is rooted not just in our mil­it­ary might, but in our ex­ample as a gov­ern­ment of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Con­gress has so far been able to duck the is­sue be­cause the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion can plaus­ibly point to a num­ber of au­thor­it­ies to jus­ti­fy its ac­tions to date in Ir­aq. Those re­sponses have already in­cluded send­ing ad­vanced weapons and roughly one thou­sand uni­formed per­son­nel to Ir­aq; con­duct­ing a hu­man­it­ari­an re­lief ef­fort in the Kur­d­ish re­gion; and launch­ing lim­ited air strikes against IS­IS tar­gets. Every day that the crisis deep­ens and U.S. mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions con­tin­ue, the leg­al found­a­tion be­neath the White House’s re­act­ive policy weak­ens.

When Pres­id­ent Obama talks about us­ing mil­it­ary force in Ir­aq to pro­tect U.S. per­son­nel there, he is clearly in­vok­ing the com­mand­er in chief’s power to de­fend Amer­ic­an cit­izens and prop­erty enu­mer­ated in Art­icle II of the Con­sti­tu­tion. He is on squish­i­er leg­al ground even in uni­lat­er­ally us­ing U.S. mil­it­ary force to res­cue eth­nic minor­it­ies to avert a “hu­man­it­ari­an cata­strophe,” however, es­pe­cially when such ac­tions play out over months and are not au­thor­ized by Con­gress or the United Na­tions Se­cur­ity Coun­cil.

There are oth­er au­thor­it­ies Obama could draw on to jus­ti­fy U.S. mil­it­ary ac­tion, but both are prob­lem­at­ic. Con­gress’s 2001 Au­thor­iz­a­tion for Use of Mil­it­ary Force against the ter­ror­ists re­spons­ible for the 9/11 at­tacks has long been in­ter­preted to al­low mil­it­ary at­tacks against al-Qaida and “as­so­ci­ated forces.” It re­mains the jus­ti­fic­a­tion for the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s tar­geted-killing-by-drone pro­gram. But al-Qaida has fam­ously dis­en­fran­chised IS­IS over its pen­chant for wan­tonly slaughter­ing fel­low Muslims, and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has said it wants to re­form and even­tu­ally re­peal the 2001 AUMF.

Even more prob­lem­at­ic is Con­gress’ 2002 Au­thor­iz­a­tion for the Use of Mil­it­ary Force against Ir­aq. While still on the books, the 2002 AUMF is ana­thema for a pres­id­ent who ran for of­fice tout­ing his op­pos­i­tion to the Ir­aq War, and Con­gress’s vote that en­abled it. When the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives re­cently voted over­whelm­ingly to bar the ad­min­is­tra­tion from de­ploy­ing mil­it­ary forces to Ir­aq for a “sus­tained com­bat role,” the White House thus sought to pair that res­ol­u­tion with a full re­peal of the 2002 AUMF.

The con­gres­sion­al de­bate on a new au­thor­iz­a­tion for mil­it­ary force should be­gin with an ex­plan­a­tion of the U.S. na­tion­al in­terests in­volved. Des­pite talk of a loom­ing U.S. en­ergy in­de­pend­ence, if oil from an in­creas­ingly un­stable Middle East were to stop flow­ing, it could trig­ger a glob­al re­ces­sion. The cred­ib­il­ity of the United States as a re­li­able part­ner””much ques­tioned around the world””is also at stake. Not only does the United States still have a stra­tegic frame­work agree­ment with the gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad, but the dis­in­teg­ra­tion of Ir­aq along sec­tari­an lines would dir­ectly threaten U.S. al­lies such as Jordan, Saudi Ar­a­bia, Le­ban­on, Tur­key, and the Per­sian Gulf states.

Most im­port­antly, IS­IS today rep­res­ents a dir­ect and grow­ing threat to the United States. It has at­trac­ted an es­tim­ated 12,000 for­eign fight­ers to its black ban­ner fly­ing over Syr­i­an and Ir­aqi ter­rit­ory, in­clud­ing hun­dreds of Europeans and Amer­ic­ans who can travel freely with West­ern pass­ports. It has a big­ger sanc­tu­ary, far more money, and is more in­dis­crim­in­ately mur­der­ous than al-Qaida was on Sept. 10, 2001. IS­IS lead­er Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi has as­sured any­one who will listen that he even­tu­ally in­tends to dir­ect his ji­had at the United States, telling the U.S. sol­diers who re­leased him from pris­on in 2009, “I’ll see you in New York.”

A con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion tar­get­ing IS­IS, however lim­ited in time or geo­graphy, would go a long way to­ward cla­ri­fy­ing for the Amer­ic­an people this grow­ing threat to their se­cur­ity. In a re­cent ex­clus­ive in­ter­view, Lt. Gen. Mi­chael Flynn, the out­go­ing dir­ect­or of the De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency, told me that Is­lam­ic ex­trem­ist groups that have ad­op­ted al-Qaida’s ni­hil­ist­ic ideo­logy are stronger and more threat­en­ing today than be­fore 9/11.

“I know that’s a scary thought, but in 2004, there were 21 total Is­lam­ic ter­ror­ist groups spread out in 18 coun­tries. Today, there are 41 Is­lam­ic ter­ror­ist groups spread out in 24 coun­tries,” said Flynn. “A lot of these groups have the in­ten­tion to at­tack West­ern in­terests, to in­clude West­ern em­bassies and in some cases West­ern coun­tries. Some have both the in­ten­tion and some cap­ab­il­ity to at­tack the United States home­land. For in­stance, we’re do­ing all we can to un­der­stand the out­flow of for­eign fight­ers from Syr­ia and Ir­aq, many of them with West­ern pass­ports, be­cause an­oth­er threat I’ve warned about is Is­lam­ic ter­ror­ists in Syr­ia ac­quir­ing chem­ic­al or bio­lo­gic­al weapons. We know they are try­ing to get their hands on chem­ic­al weapons and use what they already have to cre­ate a chem­ic­al weapons cap­ab­il­ity.”

Pres­id­ent Obama already made the case for a na­tion­al de­bate on the threat posed by the civil wars in Syr­ia and now Ir­aq when he sought con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion for pro­posed lim­ited U.S. mil­it­ary strikes on Syr­ia’s re­gime for us­ing chem­ic­al weapons against ci­vil­ian pop­u­la­tions last year.

“I’ve long be­lieved that our power is rooted not just in our mil­it­ary might, but in our ex­ample as a gov­ern­ment of the people, by the people, for the people,” Obama said at that time. “And that’s why I’ve made [the] de­cision: I will seek au­thor­iz­a­tion for the use of force from the Amer­ic­an people’s rep­res­ent­at­ives in Con­gress.”

Con­gress balked at au­thor­iz­ing mil­it­ary force in Syr­ia, and there’s a risk it could do so again with Ir­aq. Giv­en the much high­er stakes in­volved and the grow­ing threat posed by IS­IS””and the al­tern­at­ive of the White House con­tinu­ing to act alone, tent­at­ive about over­step­ping its own lim­ited ob­ject­ives””that’s a risk worth tak­ing.

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