Congress Refuses to Debate War While Threats Rise

Congress Refuses to Debate War While Threats Rise
U.S. Army photo by SSG Kyle Davis
Congress Refuses to Debate War While Threats Rise
U.S. Army photo by SSG Kyle Davis
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Congress’ abject refusal to do one of its most basic functions—publicly debate America’s wars—may now be putting the nation in legitimate danger. Most are aware that the U.S. Constitution gives the sole power for declaring wars to the Congress, however, a lesser known but key obligation the Constitution places on Congress—which it has pointedly failed to perform—is “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers...” 

Since the vote to give President George Bush the authority to engage in combat operations to defeat al-Qaeda seven days after 9/11, the U.S. Congress has refused to debate the merits of the continuation or expansion of these wars, and has consequently failed to make the necessary and proper laws to govern the conduct of America’s wars.  

This refusal has been a political embarrassment for most of the past 15 years. The Legislature’s inaction has de facto handed almost unlimited power to the Executive branch to start, expand, or broaden the scope of wars at its pleasure. This devolution has already garnered negative consequences for the nation. Recent events threaten to deepen the cost.

Last June, President Obama invoked the 2001 AUMF (authorization for use of military force) and issued a public statement updating Congress on the deployment of U.S. Armed Forces engaged mainly in counter-terrorism operations. It got little media notice at the time, but is illustrative of expansive use of American military power—and symptomatic of Congress’ truancy on the subject.

As a reminder, the AUMF expressly limits the President’s authorization “to use all necessary and appropriate force” only against “those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”  Yet despite these clearly stated limitations, the expansive list of enemies, states, and locations where the President has ordered combat operations has little or nothing to do with forces or actors associated with 9/11.

The president’s report described operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Djibouti, Libya, Niger, Cameroon, Jordan, Kosovo, Horn of Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula.  In addition to al-Qaeda, the President listed several specific enemies the United States is targeting: The Islamic State, al-Shabaab, al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and even The Lord’s Resistance Army from Africa. AQAP has the thinest of associations with the core al-Qaeda of Osama bin-Laden that launched the 9/11 attacks.  The rest of the locations and enemies have nothing to do with the 2001 attack and are therefore plainly a violation of the statute.

Most recently, the U.S. is providing military support, training, and advisors to various military actors in Iraq as part of the battle of Mosul. We have helped cobble together an unnatural coalition of forces that makes mission accomplishment uncertain and even in the event of success places in doubt their ability to build a peaceful city.

In part because of weakness in Baghdad, Shia militia have apparently gone rogue and recently decided to take action west of Mosul, promising to eventually clear other Iraqi cities – and later drive into southern Syria to fight for Assad against U.S. allies. In response, NATO ally Turkey—a staunch opponent of both Shiite and Kurdish militias—has mobilized strong armored formations at the border north of Mosul and claims they will attack into Iraq if necessary, potentially unleashing “a regional war.”  Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi shot back that if Ankara doesn’t leave Iraq, “we will consider [Turkey] an enemy and we will deal with it as an enemy.”

Yet while the situation in Iraq remains fluid and uncertain, U.S. leaders have announced they are preparing to lead an attack into the Syrian city of Raqqa against ISIS. American military missions in support of an attack on Raqqa risks accidental targeting of Syrian regime troops, Russian aircraft and ground troops, as well as Iranian troops—or U.S. personnel could be mistakenly attacked and killed by Syria, Russia, or Iran.

As the military situation escalates and the danger to U.S. interests rises, Congress remains silent. They have not, however, remained idle. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees, for example, have a packed hearing schedule where scores of experts and senior military leaders provide testimony.  Yet virtually none of these many hearings rise to the level of Senate or House debate over whether the United States should be conducting combat operations or not.

Effectively no effort has been made to determine how or if each of the combat operations the Administration has ordered are accomplishing U.S. objectives. More importantly, there is precious little examination of the risks to American national security these creeping missions pose. 

There are, however, a considerable number of hearings to decide which states and districts benefit from defense spending, which major weapon systems should get funded, and battles to try and lift sequestration so the defense budget can rise. Other hearings do address ongoing military operations, but amount to no more than speeches, resulting in no chamber-wide debate or votes. Spending so much time and effort examining minor issues contributes only at the margins to U.S. national security while the creeping dangers remain unaddressed.

Members of Congress are among the biggest supporters and defenders of members of the Armed Forces, and I know from experience that Service Members are appreciative of the support. But I argue the best way to show honor for members of the military is to hold substantive debates on matters of war and peace. 

Men and Women of the Armed Forces put their lives on the line while performing their duty. The least the members of congress could do is take the political risk of taking a stand—one way or another—on supporting or opposing military missions.  The Constitution demands it, the nation needs it, and the troops deserve it.

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