The failure to obtain authorization is often cited as having cost Truman politically when, after the Chinese invasion, the war turned bitter. Constitutional lawyers, like me, often caution presidents that public support can be fickle. That’s the argument advanced by my colleague Conor Friedersdorf here, quoting Ilya Somin in The Washington Post:
One of the main justifications for the Constitution’s requirement that presidents can only initiate war if they have congressional authorization is to ensure that any such war is backed by a broad political consensus. If we decide to fight a war at all, it should only be in cases where there is widespread agreement that the war is justified, and that we will do what is necessary to prevail.
I agree. But the truth is, most wars, declared or undeclared, are popular at the outset and unpopular if they drag on. George W. Bush got his authorization for the war in Iraq in 2002; that didn’t stop the public, and the politicians, from jumping ship when the war turned out to be a disaster.
The U.S. has been conducting, and expanding, military operations in the Middle East for more than a year without a serious debate. After the atrocities in Syria, the bombing of a Russian airliner, the suicide bombings in Lebanon and Iraq, and the massacre in Paris, the world, and the American people, demand that the U.S. step up the war, if that’s what it is, against ISIS.
A congressional war debate may be important not as a show of national unity but to highlight disunity. Now, not later, is the time to explore the gap between those, like President Obama, who want to fight a measured war against ISIS, and those across the aisle who want to declare war on “radical Islam,” or proclaim “a clash of civilizations.”
A “war” against ISIS will be hard enough. The “enemy” is a non-state actor; there’s so little information that it’s difficult to agree, from day to day, on what its name is. How will the U.S. know how to defeat it? How can the country keep the war from spreading into an unwinnable assault on a religion or a civilization? Is the U.S. preparing to fight, in Joe Haldeman’s phrase, a “forever war”?
Perhaps politics are completely broken and a debate will do no good. But if U.S. leaders can’t decide between “leading from behind” and plunging into a global religious war, perhaps the country shouldn’t be sending its young men and women to risk their lives.
And there’s always a chance airing differences will help reduce them. It could happen. Besides, America’s fundamental law says it should. Surely that counts for something.