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Congress must not duck military duties

Congress has a month to stop ducking and dodging.

It has a responsibility to join with President Obama in authorizing and funding the U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria for this fiscal year.

It’s also time for the nation to hear a serious, nonpartisan discussion about whom we are fighting in the Middle East and why. Obama and his top military advisers say the fight will last for at least three or four years. But for most Americans, this is a passing YouTube-like experience.

Fewer than 1 percent of the country’s men and women have served in the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria.

In 13 years of fighting, Americans have not been asked to pay a war tax to cover the tab, which is in the trillions of dollars.

For three months, U.S. service personnel have been risking their lives in the fight against the Islamic State. Meanwhile, politicians — many concerned with their own hides — have kept silent or been armchair generals. Obama’s approach is too weak or too strong.

But key deadlines are coming and the Islamic State and other jihadists are not going to stop their suicide bombings in Iraq or their slaughter of opponents in Syria while Republicans get organized for the 114th Congress in January.

The lame-duck Congress can’t be so lame. It must act before Dec. 11, when the fiscal 2015 continuing appropriations joint resolution runs out.

Legislators not only must extend core Pentagon funding into next year, but also vote the additional $5.6 billion Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel requested Friday for the overseas contingency operations account to pay for the stepped-up U.S. activities against the Islamic State.

The Pentagon also needs to extend legislative authorization for the $500 million program to train and equip vetted Syrian moderate forces, a request Obama first sent to Congress in June and whose temporary approval also runs out Dec. 11.

“We need the authorization and the funding that comes with it in order to be able to conduct this mission, and the (defense) secretary obviously is urging Congress to pass it as soon as possible,” Rear Adm. John Kirby told Pentagon reporters Friday.

Obama needs to do more than explain his program — which I believe is the correct one. It includes coalition support featuring Arab countries, and U.S.-led programs that offer training, equipment and military assistance. The latter consists primarily of coalition air power in support of Iraqis and, later, vetted Syrians on the ground.

The Obama plan sticks to the basic premise that there will be no U.S. ground combat troops involved.

On Sunday, the president recited the lesson he learned from Iraq and is applying in Afghanistan.

Speaking of why U.S. troops will not take up the fight on the ground, Obama said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” “Our military is always the best. We can always knock out . . . any threat, but then when we leave, that threat comes back.”

The president, however, has to do more than appear on television. He has to push on Capitol Hill and campaign across the country.

First, he must send to Congress his own draft of what should be a congressional authorization for the use of force in this new situation.

Why get tangled up in distracting and eventually irrelevant arguments over constitutional authority and the War Powers Act? A president sending U.S. forces into harm’s way needs public backing represented through an authorization resolution approved by Congress.

President George H.W. Bush did it in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and President George W. Bush did it for Afghanistan and Iraq.

Obama can protect his executive powers by writing his own draft and controlling any changes Congress may make.

White House press secretary Josh Ernest put it bluntly Friday: “The question, then, is what should be included in that authorization to use military force? What should the language be?”

Do you define the enemy, limit it to the Islamic State or add other jihadist groups named or unnamed? What about the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad?

Do you define what force can be used, equipment that can be given? Permit air power but take U.S. ground troops off the table?

Do you limit the geographic area where this authorization is to be used? Do you place a time limit?

The Congressional Research Service made its suggestions for an authorization resolution. On Syrian training, it suggested including things such as, “Who should receive such U.S. training and assistance? How should they be identified and vetted? What criteria should Congress insist upon for the vetting of participants?”

These were not abstract questions.

On Wednesday, Obama told reporters it would make sense that the new authorization “reflects what we perceive to be not just our strategy over the next two or three months, but our strategy going forward.”

He added that although the discussion might begin in this lame-duck session, “it may carry over into the next — into the next Congress.”

Neither Obama nor Congress should allow the requirement for a new authorization to drag on. Tens of thousands of U.S. service personnel are in the Middle East carrying on this fight. They deserve to know that not only the president and their military leaders support the effort, but also Congress and the American people.

That' s the way the system is supposed to work.

© 2014, The Washington Post

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