The Blue Side: A Congressional Capitulation Sets a Dangerous Precedent

This week, The Skidmore News introduces a new opinion column: Politimore. We've recruited four writers, two liberal and two conservative, to take turns writing on some of the big political issues of the week. The liberal column, The Blue Side, begins with our columnist's thoughts on Obama's approach to ISIS. By Jeremy Ritter-Wiseman, Columnist

liberalWhen both houses of Congress passed a spending bill last week that approved the training and arming of Syrian opposition forces, it potentially set a dangerous precedent for the war powers of the executive. In his speech to the nation last week, President Obama asserted that he has the authority to address the ISIS (Islamic State, ISIL, pick your poison) threat without congressional approval, but asked for support as he feels “we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together.” The bills were expeditiously passed with bipartisan support, granting Obama’s wish. The legislation, however, only approved the training and arming of Syrian opposition forces; failing to address the President’s claim that he could act independently.

Obama’s legal recourse for extra-congressional action is grounded in 2001 and 2002 congressional approval authorizing force to pursue Al Qaeda and to invade Iraq following 9/11. To many experts, this is an extraordinary assertion as the President is justifying potential military ventures with legislation passed over a decade ago in different circumstances. In preparation for the congressional vote, the administration has characterized ISIS as tantamount to Al Qaeda, as if to assure that the prior authorizations are still relevant. In the administration’s eyes, the threat posed by ISIS rivals that of Al Qaeda and Iraq in the early 2000s. Thus, authorizations from the beginning of the Iraq War should extend to cover the current military intervention.

Without congressional authorization, war powers of the president are largely limited to the ability to repel sudden attacks or direct threats to the nation (shout out to Ronald Seyb). Without a clear threat to national security, the president cannot act without congressional approval. Although Obama has received authorization to train and arm Syrian rebels, congressional silence on his claim to be able to act without new authorization could be interpreted as tacit approval; congressional inaction has been used as legal justification for presidential action in the past. This opens the constitutional floodgates for future executive military action and leaves the door open for Obama to escalate at will.

Congress’s silence on the issue could have consequences in the near future as the U.S. readies itself for yet another military operation poised for escalation. First, Obama has conveyed his readiness to conduct airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, which would represent a direct military intervention into a sovereign nation’s civil war – a daunting realization. Second, military “advisers” have already been sent to Iraq and are advising the Iraqi military in different capacities. However, the line between being an “adviser” and “combat troop” is becoming increasingly muddled. Finally, and perhaps most resonant, is the recent testimony from Obama’s top military adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey. Testifying in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dempsey noted that if the current strategy failed in eliminating ISIS, he would recommend combat troops by deployed to address the situation. Following weeks of a broken-record Obama constantly reassuring the American public that no U.S. combat troops would be committed to another engagement in Iraq, this recent revelation by the country’s senior-most military adviser is disconcerting. Although Obama wasted no time in once again reaffirming his promise to not send U.S. troops, the apparent convolution within the administration exhibits neither confidence nor coherence in the struggle to eliminate ISIS. Despite Obama’s assurances, such testimony from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs carries great weight.

There is clearly a need to address the crisis plaguing the Levant, and there is currently no reason to believe the President plans on breaking his promise of no “boots on the ground.” However, there is undoubtedly a long road ahead in confronting ISIS, and the possibility for some window of escalation seems likely. Therefore it is imperative that before acting without congressional approval, the administration reports that ISIS presents a direct national security threat and cites updated justifications that do not rely on twelve-year-old legislation as evidence. If this is not realized and Obama exploits the recent congressional capitulation of war powers, it could set a dangerous precedent for future administrations.

The authorization to train and arm Syrian opposition forces runs out in December, opening up room for further deliberation. Upon that date, Congress must take up the issue of the early 2000s authorizations being used as legal justification for independent executive action. In its place, a new authorization must be developed that outlines the scope of the Commander-In-Chief’s options in addressing ISIS, and closes the door on ambiguously justified unilateral war powers.

Update: The U.S. announced on Tuesday that airstrikes were carried out against Sunni militants in Syria in conjunction with several other nations.

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