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editorial

Congress should set new rules for combating terrorists

President Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden (left) and Secretary of State John Kerry, has asked Congress to authorize use of military force against ISIS.
President Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden (left) and Secretary of State John Kerry, has asked Congress to authorize use of military force against ISIS.AP/file

President Obama is finally seeking Congressional authorization for his six-month-old war against the Islamic State, or ISIS — a war that, according to some constitutional scholars, might currently be illegal for lack of just such an authorization.

Still, Obama’s belated request for formal authorization from Congress is highly welcome. It should promote a more strenuous debate about the aims of and justifications for the campaign against ISIS, as well as set clear limits on the scale of US involvement. It’s encouraging that the president is asking Congress for a limited three-year authorization to use military force, as opposed to an open-ended ticket.

But it’s alarming that the 2001 authorization for war against Al Qaeda , which is among the laws the president has questionably used as justification for attacking the Islamic State, will apparently remain in force — a sort of endless license to justify military action. The new authorization should replace, not supplement, the 2001 authorization that was used for authorization of a wholly different war against a different enemy in Afghanistan.

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With its new request for authorization, the Obama administration is essentially asking Congress to bless a wider but generally better defined war against the murderous jihadi movement.

It’s not clear whether Obama exceeded his executive authority by ordering air strikes against insurgent positions starting Aug. 8, but he certainly took that authority to the very brink — perhaps necessarily, given the sheer brutality of the Islamic State. ISIS fighters have now gained positions in Libya. Fighters for the Islamic State, including hundreds of young recruits from North America and Europe, have killed many thousands of Muslim civilians in Iraq, Syria, and Kurdish-controlled regions. They have beheaded US journalists and foreign aid workers, and executed Arab Christians “for carrying the Cross.”

There’s no question the vicious movement needs to be suppressed. And there’s little question that it will take a more intensive war than the present US-led campaign of B1 bombers and attack jets. But Americans are war weary, and there’s little support for US boots on the ground — the president’s request to Congress seeks a limited ground role, such as Special Forces raids against highly specific targets, or helicopter-borne rescue teams retrieving downed pilots.

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The debate has begun, and that’s for the good, even if it is taking directions that Obama could foresee but surely didn’t wish. Congressional doves — mostly Democrats — are indicating they will not back the president’s requested authorization, since it leaves too wide an opening for US troops in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders says he “cannot support the resolution in its present form without clearer limitations on the role of US combat troops.”

More hawkish Republicans, meanwhile, regard Obama’s request as too limited. They say Congress should simply give the president carte blanche “to kill and destroy’” the Islamic State, in the words of Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

The grim reality is that America faces a serious, growing threat. The calculated brutality of the Islamic State — plus its shockingly swift territorial advances — requires a military response. It’s heartening that some of the United States’ Arab allies are joining the fray, not just by providing air bases but by flying combat sorties against ISIS.

Congress should vigorously take up the challenge of redrafting a military authorization that takes serious account of what has worked — and what has failed so bloodily — in the post-9/11 fights against terrorism. It’s especially crucial that Congress weigh what sort of military action truly works in suppressing terrorist groups, and what only spurs recruitment of more fanatical fighters.

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Related:

Karen Courington: Congressional debate over war against ISIS long overdue

Scot Lehigh: Let Congress authorize war against ISIS

Michael A. Cohen: Obama’s imperial about-face on ISIS