Obviously there are exceptions; when an emergency occurs (what Madison called a “sudden attack,” but also an emergent threat to Americans or American interests abroad), the president can respond first and ask for permission later. But the “war” on the Islamic State isn’t like that at all; it was a policy decision carefully arrived at. The Islamic State is a frightening enemy; but it was not immediately menacing the U.S.
This war is an ongoing violation of the Constitution, one of the most severe of the 21st century. But it is a violation in which both parties are happy to collaborate. The administration claims it already has authority for the intervention, in the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed in 2001, which gave the president authority to attack “nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” That enemy was al-Qaeda; now, administration officials say, the Islamic State is (as one anonymously put it) “the true inheritor of Usama bin Laden’s legacy.” In other words, the Islamic State is the cow with the crumpled horn, and if you follow the chain back far enough, you eventually get to the House that Jack Built. That chain may be faulty or even fanciful; but this analysis at least complies with the forms.
The administration has requested specific authorization for the effort to combat the Islamic State, submitting a complex draft resolution that authorizes the president to use force against the Islamic State and “associated forces”—but that also forbids the use of U.S. ground troops and requires reauthorization after three years.
The draft is plainly aimed at preventing the war from spreading out of control—and, at least in part, at limiting the options of Obama’s successor. For this reason among others, the Republican leadership has balked at passing it, preferring something far more open ended and sweeping. Senator Marco Rubio, for example, reacted to the draft this way: “I would say that there is a pretty simple authorization he could ask for and it would read one sentence: ‘We authorize the president to defeat and destroy ISIL.’ Period.” Senator Lindsey Graham said the limitations would “harm the war effort.” Both of them imagine they may be using a future authorization, and want it to be as wide as possible. But to Obama, an over-broad resolution would be the nightmare of permanent war that he has tried to escape for the past six years.
Some Democrats, meanwhile, believe that even Obama’s language is too broad. So we have stalemate—a stalemate the administration can live with. It has its claim of authority already in place, and it’s unwilling to rock the military boat while a vote is pending on the Iran nuclear deal.
The scandal in this is that almost nobody is really working to resolve the impasse. Senators Timothy Kaine of Virginia, a Democrat, and Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican, have submitted a draft which would provide limited authorization, but their colleagues aren’t beating down their doors to cosponsor the bill. Kaine recently told The Hill that the Senate “has hardly had more than 90 minutes of discussion about this” since the Obama draft arrived.