Congress Should Tell President Barack Obama No to War against the Islamic State

President Barack Obama finally is obeying the law. He wants Congress to authorize military action against the Islamic State. 

Congress should respond as it was prepared to do when the president requested permission last year to bomb Syria: Capitol Hill should say no.

Candidate Barack Obama stated: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”  But three years ago, President Obama took America into war against Libya.  Three months ago, he initiated hostilities in Iraq against the Islamic State. Both without a congressional vote.

Most recently, administration officials claimed authority under the Authorization for Use of Military Force against al-Qaeda adopted in the aftermath of September 11.  But the Islamic State is not al-Qaeda and ISIL’s leaders did not help organize the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon. 

The president obviously changed his mind after his party was defeated in the off-year elections.  At least he now is following the Constitution. 

The Founders gave most military powers to Congress: raising and funding the military, writing the rules of war, issuing letters of marquee, and ratifying treaties. Moreover, Article I, Section 8 (11) states: “Congress shall have the power … to declare war.” 

The early Americans feared a president and war like today.  The Founders particularly opposed a system which subjected the nation’s peace to the whims of one man, accountable to no one.

For instance, at the Constitutional Convention George Mason advocated “clogging rather than facilitating war” because he didn’t believe the president to be “safely to be entrusted with” the authority to commence military action.  James Wilson applauded the convention’s language,  “It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power of declaring war is in the legislature at large.” 

Today’s “president-as-king” club contends that “declare” simply meant to take note of the fact that the chief executive had dragged America into war.  But the convention delegates complained about the monarch taking them into unnecessary wars. 

John Jay argued that kings relied on dubious motives and engaged “in wars not sanctified by justice or the voice and interests of his people.”  Pierce Butler spoke against placing in the president’s “hands the influence of a monarch, having an opportunity of involving his country in a war whenever he wished to promote her destruction.” 

Over the centuries several of America’s most respected presidents affirmed the original constitutional understanding.  George Washington observed:  “no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after [Congress] shall have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.” 

Abraham Lincoln opined that the Framers recognized war “to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.”  Dwight Eisenhower promised that he would not “order any troops into anything that can be interpreted as war, until Congress directs it.” 

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative icon, more recently wrote: “Except for the actual command of military forces, all authorization for their maintenance and all explicit authorization for their use is placed in the control of Congress under Article I, rather than the president under Article II.”

Now that President Obama finally has requested congressional authorization, legislators should vote no.

As I observed on Forbes online:  “Congress has no obligation to support a bad presidential request.  The Islamic State is evil, but that hardly makes it unique.  American foreign policy should focus on protecting Americans, and not undertaking a Quixotic crusade around the globe.” 

President Obama did the right thing by belatedly asking Congress for authority to go to war.  Congress also should do the right thing—by saying no.