Most of the reaction to President Barack Obama’s speech on the subject of what to do about the Islamic State has been surprisingly muted but generally favorable. Perhaps that’s because there are no easy answers.
I agree with Obama’s contention that we cannot ignore Islamic State just because the group does not pose an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland. We cannot stand idly by while Islamic State launches terrorist attacks against innocent civilians, publicly beheads helpless prisoners and does all it can to overthrow legitimate governments. The actions he proposes to take — increasing the level of American military strikes and providing training, support and coordination with coalition partners, all to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State — appear to be perfectly appropriate.
Where I disagree with him is when he says he has the authority to do all of this by himself, in his constitutional role as commander in chief.
I have no doubt that he and his lawyers can make a legal case for that position. That is beside the point. When a commander in chief proposes to engage in acts of war that are not part of a short-term emergency but are commitments that stretch over an indefinite period of time, he should ask for formal congressional approval even if the letter of the law does not require it. It is the spirit of the law, arising from the constitutional declaration that “Congress ... shall have the power to declare war,” that matters. Simple “consultation with legislative leaders” is not enough.
The precedents are clear.
When George H. W. Bush decided that Saddam Hussein had to be forced out of Kuwait, his lawyers told him he had the right to do so without formal congressional authorization. He sought it anyway, because the stamp of congressional approval that he received was needed to unite the country behind him once the shooting began.
When Bill Clinton decided to use force in Bosnia and Herzegovina, once again, lawyers told him he could do so without congressional approval, and, once again, a president who understood what was at stake knew that political reality dictated that he should go to Congress before proceeding. Clinton did it again with respect to his decision to bomb Iraq. I voted with him, accepting his rationale that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
When George W. Bush decided to remove Saddam from Iraq altogether, the lawyers told him he could do it with the authority that had been given to Clinton. Bush knew the country would never buy that. He went to Congress for fresh authority and got it, with support from then-Sens. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and John Kerry.
I can understand why Obama might be reluctant to do the same thing. The past year has not been kind to him. His relationship with both houses of Congress is at a low ebb and his standing in the country is not much better. His approval ratings have dipped to their lowest levels. Perhaps he wants to showcase the strength of his personal resolve, his determination to use the full powers of the presidency to solve the Islamic State problem.
That’s fine, but he will undermine his own effort if he moves ahead on his own. That would put even greater pressure on him to succeed and politically divide the country even more than it is now. He will build more support for his actions if he follows the examples of his two immediate predecessors and seeks congressional authorization for his actions, even if the letter of the law says he doesn’t need it.
As the Bible says, “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.