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Concerned About ISIS, but Also About Endless War? Back Limits on the Use of Force

Polls show the majority of Americans think that Congress should debate and vote to use military force.

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In response to the US bombing of Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in Iraq and Syria, which Congress has never explicitly approved, members of Congress long concerned about presidents and Congresses skirting the constitutional role of Congress in deciding when the United States will use military force have introduced H. Con. Res. 114, “Urging Congress to debate and vote on a statutory authorization for any sustained United States combat role in Iraq or Syria.”

When Congress returns from recess after the election in November, it will still not have debated and voted on a sustained US combat role in Iraq or Syria, even though a “sustained combat role” is obviously what the Pentagon is doing and plans to do. Polls have shown that the majority of Americans think that Congress should debate and vote. Members of Congress can show that they back the public’s desire for a Congressional debate and vote by supporting H. Con. Res. 114.

The resolution, which currently has 23 cosponsors, says that Congress:

1. should debate and vote on whether the United States should be involved in sustained combat in Iraq or Syria;

2. does not support the deployment of ground combat troops in Iraq or Syria;

3. should ensure that any grant of authority for force is narrowly tailored and limited; and

4. should ensure that any grant of authority for force includes robust reporting requirements.

These points in the “resolved clause” of H. Con. Res. 114 provide a set of four principles that the president, members of Congress and the American people can agree on for considering any authorization of force against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

1. Debate and Vote: The president claims that he has authority under existing law to do what he’s doing without new Congressional action; whether we agree with that or not, Congress should debate and vote. The public have said they want it. The president has said that he would welcome Congressional action. A debate and vote will hold Congress accountable, forcing our elected officials to take positions on the record, which is a key part of their jobs.

2. No US Ground Combat Troops: The president has said that he will not use US troops in a ground war in Iraq or Syria. Most Democrats and many Republicans agree that he shouldn’t, but some Republicans have suggested that US ground troops should be deployed to combat, and many Americans fear that that the president will be pressured into abandoning his commitment not to use US ground troops. Enacting the president’s promise into law will kill the pressure for using US ground troops by showing that it’s not just the president: Congress doesn’t want to use US ground troops either.

While US Special Forces are being used near combat, and that certainly does create serious risks, most members of Congress and the public correctly see that as fundamentally much less risky than a large deployment of regular US soldiers to combat. If the use of US ground combat troops is barred, far fewer US soldiers will be at risk; the risk that they are taking will be much smaller; the risk to foreign civilians from the U.S. military presence will be much smaller, and the relative role of U.S. forces relative to other forces will be much smaller, as it should be.

The president has rightly insisted that the struggle against ISIS is not going to be won by the US militarily; diplomatic, political, and financial efforts to weaken ISIS, and military action by US allies, will determine whether ISIS is defeated. Barring the use of US ground troops will help ensure that the role of US military force does not become too great relative to nonmilitary means and military action by US allies.

3. Authority for the use of force should be narrowly tailored and limited: Congress should not hand this president or any future president a “blank check” to use force in Iraq and Syria however he or she might want, as Congress gave President George W. Bush before he started the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003.

President Obama himself has said that an authorization of force should be targeted and focused. Many in Congress and the public support the president’s actions so far but worry about “mission creep” and a “slippery slope” that could lead to a war in Syria against the Syrian government. Congress can prevent that by limiting the targets of an AUMF to ISIS, Nusra, and other Al Qaeda-type groups, as Democratic Senator Tim Kaine and others have proposed. Senator Kaine and others have also proposed including a time limit, or “sunset,” on any authorization of force. This will ensure that the war can’t drag on and on without Congress having to debate and vote on whether the war should continue. Senator Kaine has proposed a “sunset” of one year.

4. Any grant of authority for force should include robust reporting requirements: During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and also in the policy of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, Congress, the media, and the public have had trouble getting access to basic information about what the US military and intelligence agencies were doing – basic information that Congress, the media, and the public have the right and need to know to be able to judge the effectiveness, wisdom and morality of US military actions.

For example, there is no official public record of how many civilians have been killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, although we know that the US government collects this information. US officials have claimed that reporting by media and human rights groups has overstated civilian casualties from US airstrikes, but these US officials haven’t had to “show their work.” Already since the US began bombing Syria, accounts of civilian casualties from U. airstrikes by US officials have diverged from accounts by independent human rights groups.

The more members of Congress support H. Con. Res. 114, the stronger will be the bloc of members preparing to limit the use of force. You can urge your Representative to cosponsor the resolution here.