How does a war-weary president convince a war-weary nation to start another war? In a prime-time address to the nation on Wednesday evening, President Obama tried.
First, he laid out the case against ISIS, a ruthless terrorist organization unlike any we've ever seen. With its tactics of wholesale executions of men who refuse to convert to Islam, rape and enslavement of women, murder of children and beheading of hostages, ISIS has demonstrated, as President Obama noted, it has no vision "other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way." Between Iraq and Syria, ISIS already controls territory as big as the state of Maryland with a population of over 5 million, including Mosul, the second-biggest city in Iraq. While it may not yet have plans to launch attacks on American soil, it clearly poses a grave threat to American interests and our allies in the region – a threat that cannot be ignored.
The big question is: How do we deal with that threat? Obama outlined his plan, which, fortunately, is not out of the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney playbook: "Who Needs Allies? Shoot First, Ask Questions Later." True to his nature, Obama's taking a much more careful, deliberate, thoughtful and welcome approach.
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Unfortunately, however, his strategy depends on four factors we can't control. Everybody acknowledges that air strikes alone will not be enough to "degrade and destroy" ISIS. And the president, correctly, rejects sending American combat forces back into Iraq. So, for air strikes to work against ISIS positions inside Syria, Obama's counting on four elements: a new, stable, unified Iraqi government; a new, well-trained and well-armed Iraqi army; a new, well-trained and well-armed Syrian opposition; and ground troops or support from friendly Sunni Arab nations in the region, like Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Note: Not one of those elements is in place today, and every one of them is iffy. The new Iraqi government is less than a week old and still not fully formed. The Iraqi military ran for the hills the last time it faced ISIS. The Syrian opposition hasn't yet proven to be an effective fighting force against Assad. And, despite all the billions of dollars we've given them over the years, neither Saudi Arabia nor Jordan has yet put any boots on the ground. By any calculation, if four elements of the plan are iffy, the whole plan is iffy. We're engaging in an ISIS strategy built on sand.
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And, no doubt about it, this is war. The White House won't call it that, but sending U.S. military forces into extended combat operations, whether in the air or on the ground, to destroy a foreign enemy is war. President Obama ended the first war he inherited, in Iraq. He still hopes to end the second war left over from George W. Bush, in Afghanistan, by the end of the year. But now he's launching a third war, his own war, in Iraq and Syria. Perhaps that war is justified. At least for the sake of argument, let's accept the fact that ISIS poses a serious enough threat to justify beginning another war. But the president should not commit the United States to a new war, especially one that might well outlast his presidency, without the authorization of Congress.
On that point, he's already making a big mistake. Obama says he'd welcome the support of Congress, but he doesn't need it because he already has all the authority he needs under the Authority for Use of Military Force resolution, or AUMF, passed by Congress after Sept. 11, 2001. Only one problem with that argument: When running for president in 2008, Obama condemned President Bush for using the AUMF as justification for invading Iraq – and earlier this year he asked Congress to repeal AUMF. It's weird, if not hypocritical, for him to embrace the AUMF now.
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Before ordering air strikes against ISIS in Syria, Obama should seek a vote from Congress. Not only that, Congress should demand a vote. Read the Constitution. It's their job! And only through a robust debate in Congress can we get answers to important questions: How long is this new war likely to last? What's it going to cost? What's the end game? If 11 years of American military power hasn't ended violence in Iraq, why do we think another war will work?
The president has spoken. Let the debate begin.