Why President Obama Should Ask Permission to Wage War

U.S. action against ISIS is war by any reasonable definition—and he owes it to today's citizens and the future to follow the Constitution.


One informed observer of the national-security state, Marc Ambinder, is doing his best to puzzle out President Obama's approach to fighting the radical militia ISIS. He is sympathetic to the difficult decisions Obama faces, as am I, but his analysis leans heavily on the notion that counterterrorism is a gray zone beyond classification. That belief causes him to be too forgiving of the president's illegal power grabs.

"With his administration using the word 'war' and promising to 'destroy' ISIS, Obama has gotten himself into more of a pickle. I don't actually think, in his heart of hearts, Obama believes that the U.S. is going to 'war' with anyone," Ambinder writes. "Obama does not think the United States has to fight a 'war on terrorism.' There is no such thing. War, real war, is different. Qualitatively. Fundamentally. War implies an end. Combating violent extremism, which was the administration's phrase of choice, speaks to the enduring nature of the conflict."

The larger context, as Ambinder sees it (his emphasis):

Counterterrorism campaigns do not neatly fit into our black-and-white descriptions of the way conventional wars begin and end. There will never be "victory" in the sense that terrorists will stop trying to attack the United States. What there will be, instead, is managed risk. A constant effort to detect and degrade the threat. A balance of measures—political, military, legal, and otherwise—focusing on the capacity of terrorists to create havoc outside their geographical boundaries. Preventing them from obtaining or developing weapons of mass destruction.

Later he expands on why he doesn't think that we're really at war:

The number of U.S. combat troops in Somalia, Yemen, and Iraq—three places where Islamic extremists are on the march—is tiny, a fraction of the number that President Bush mobilized for Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost, too, is not war-like. If Obama keeps even 2,000 special operations forces and their enablers in Iraq until the end of his presidency, the cost is negligible.

This is a curious metric for war. Yes, the War on Terrorism is different from other conflicts in various ways. But why does the number of troops needed as compared to Iraq matter? Why does the cost, which is only "negligible" in terms of the rest of a gargantuan military budget, matter? Why must Obama be graded on a curve set by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney?

If American war planes are firing missiles at a foreign nation or militia, that is war. Everyone understands as much with respect to foreign countries. Imagine an Iranian drone carried out a single targeted missile strike on an Israeli settlement. Would that be an act of war? Or not so much, because it's merely part of "a balance of measures—political, military, legal, and otherwise," to degrade Zionism? What if Russia stationed, in a foreign country, just a tiny fraction of the troops that Bush mobilized for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan?

The Framers gave Congress the power to declare war in part because they knew that war is the health of the state. They feared that the power incentives presidents have to wage war would cause them to do so in cases when they shouldn't. They trusted a body of representatives more than the instinct of one man. And they believed that a body directly responsive to the people should have a say.

Everything about that logic applies to the decision to fight ISIS.

As I see it, Obama is waging war illegally, just like he did previously (and without legal consequences) in Libya. He has failed to secure the congressional authorization needed to be consistent with his own avowed understanding of the War Powers Resolution. That legislation passed because a bygone president was able to enmesh America in a war that, for some years, didn't seem entirely like a war.

​But say for the sake of argument that we aren't really at war, and that "in his heart of hearts," Obama doesn't believe himself to be at war. If that's so, the Obama administration has no right to take many of the actions it has justified by citing the president's war powers. Obama and his defenders can't have it both ways. If no war, then no increased powers as the commander-in-chief. In court, Obama's lawyers don't have any doubt about whether their boss considers himself to be at war as a matter of law. They don't much care what's in his heart.

Later in his piece, Ambinder hazards a guess as to why we're fighting ISIS. It's as good as any:

We are not fighting ISIS because ISIS is plotting an imminent attack on the U.S. We are fighting ISIS because (a) the U.S. does not want Iran to fight and defeat ISIS alone; (b) the Saudis recognize that ISIS poses an existential threat to them if not checked soon; (c) Obama believes the U.S. has a residual responsibility to try to help stabilize Iraq if Iraq asks for the help, which it now is; (d) ISIS, well-funded and well-armed, has threatened the United States directly, and there is no reason to think that they won't try to find some way to directly attack American interests down the road: (e) an ISIS unchecked could throw the entire region into complete chaos; (f) Syria seems to welcome the help, and in any case, the administration has signaled that airstrikes in Syria will be a very modest part of this campaign; and (g) the relative risk to American assets, people, and authority is low.

Again, using military force in foreign countries to undercut geopolitical rivals, protect allies, and preempt attacks sounds an awful lot like war, but whatever word one wants to use, shouldn't there be a national debate about whether our money and military ought to be used for those goals? Obama purports to believe that "it is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action." He hasn't honored that belief or disavowed it. The ambiguity permits him to retain his greatest asset as a politician: slipperiness. He inspires in his supporters a desire to see in him whatever they want to see in him.

Though deeply skeptical of another military intervention, I've stayed agnostic about the best policy toward ISIS. What vexes me more than anything about Obama's approach is that in ways big and small, he keeps subverting the vital public debate that ought to influence American foreign policy. He has been instrumental in depriving Americans of congressional votes on matters of military force. Without those votes, there can be no accountability of the sort that contributed to an Iraq War supporter like Hillary Clinton losing a close 2008 primary.

Obama gets a pass from commentators who presume he is more than a politician winging it. Over time I've come to have a different theory of the man: The only "12-dimensional chess" he ever played was persuading a good portion of the country's political observers that he cared about civil liberties, limits on executive power, and fighting terrorism without compromising core values. Shame on him for misleading us. Continuing to extend to him the presumption of good faith? That is irrational.

I suspect Obama does not ask Congress or the people before doing whatever he believes is best in foreign affairs because he knows other "deciders" might thwart what he "knows" in his "heart of hearts" to be best. Call it arrogance or paternalism, or if you're an Obama apologist, call it his wisdom for seeing that while checks and balances and a legislature may be important generally speaking, America is better off setting all that aside, just so long as we have such a prudent, intelligent, Abraham Lincoln-like man in the White House (plus subordinates like CIA Director John Brennan, the most "priest-like" man ever to keep a death list).

Even if I felt Obama to be a man of uncommon prudence, character, and judgment, I'd understand the danger of the precedents he is so recklessly setting. The extreme theories of executive power that he has embraced won't end with his presidency. Unless and until the legislature acts to rein in the executive branch, future presidents will unilaterally start wars, and sooner or later the consequences will be so dire that no one will have any doubts about the wars being real. These future presidents won't care what was in Obama's heart, they will focus on what he actually did—and so should we. A president that makes war as he sees fit undermines important laws and norms. A president who uses war powers to engage in never-ending "combat against violent extremism" does just as much damage.