SOTU: Obama Requests Authorization for War He Is Already Fighting

The president doesn't make the case for taking out ISIS


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In his State of the Union address, President Obama asked Congress to authorize him to use military force against ISIS terrorists—even though lack of authorization hasn't stopped him yet.

He prefaced this request with remarks about how successful his foreign policy has been so far:

Instead of Americans patrolling the valleys of Afghanistan, we've trained their security forces, who've now taken the lead, and we've honored our troops' sacrifice by supporting that country's first democratic transition. Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we're partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America. In Iraq and Syria, American leadership?—?including our military power?—?is stopping ISIL's advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group. We're also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism. This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.

What Obama didn't do, however, was explain why Congress should grant him authorization. He did not lay out a vision for defeating ISIS—or at least, not one that's remotely realistic. And he painted an all-too cheery picture of the situation so far. Airstrikes against ISIS in Syria have not deterred the terrorist organization from conquering large swaths of territory. The supposedly moderate Syrian rebels are a disorganized and untrustworthy bunch, and we have to crush ISIS without accidentally empowering dictator Bashar al-Assad.

The president's legal mandate is as confused as his battle strategy. Why should Congress grant him authorization to do the things he is already doing? If Congress weighs intervention, and decides against it, will Obama desist? If authorization is irrelevant to our current bombing campaign and logistical support for rebel fighters, does that mean the president would treat actual authorization as a mandate to up the ante?

Ilya Somin of the Cato Institute and George Mason University—a supporter of military action against ISIS—put it this way:

Like Obama, I believe there is good justification for military action to prevent ISIS from consolidating its control of large parts of the Middle East, and from committing further barbaric atrocities. I therefore hope Congress does pass the AUMF.

But after-the-fact authorization is not enough to cure the president's repeated violation of the constitutional requirement that the initiation of war requires ;advance congressional approval. As then-senator Obama put it in 2007, "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." Sadly, the war against ISIS is not the first time that Obama undermined his own constitutional principles on this score. He previously did it by launching a military intervention in Libya in 2011. As prominent liberal constitutional law scholar Bruce Ackerman points out, Obama's violations of the Constitution in this respect go far beyond anything done by George W. Bush. Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine has also stated that lack of congressional authorization makes the war against ISIS "illegal."

If going to war with ISIS is in the best interests of the U.S., then Obama should make that case to Congress and the American people. Instead, he is content to disregard the Constitution and invite Congress to rubber-stamp his indiscretions—even as he refuses to explain why this next great battle for civilization in the Middle East is any more worthwhile than the last one.