Both the House and the Senate, in recent years, have passed resolutions affirming that the official national motto of the United States is “In God we trust.” That controversy settled, perhaps when Congress goes back into session in November, it could take up the matter of its own motto. Which should surely be, “When in doubt, chicken out.”
It’s a perfect description of what our elected representatives did three weeks ago when President Obama announced he was launching yet another war in the Middle East, this one against the Islamic State insurgents in Iraq and Syria.
This war, by the Pentagon’s own admission, will take years. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who approves of the president’s plan, predicts “a 30-year war” that will broaden to the rest of the Middle East and parts of Africa.
It will cost a breathtaking amount of money — a Pentagon spokesman said that the current estimate is $7 million to $10 million a day and “you can expect that that number will probably go north of that over time.”
And despite Obama’s promise that there will be no U.S. boots on the ground, it will take American lives. The first was lost last week when a Marine air crewman’s attempt to bail out of a failing plane ended at the bottom of the Persian Gulf.
No matter what you think of the Islamic State or the wisdom of the United States confronting it, this war is clearly an undertaking that deserves serious consideration and a national consensus before going ahead.
So: Confronted by Obama’s announcement that he was, without consultation with the rest of the government, committing the United States to a war of inestimable cost in lives and dollars that will likely last long past the end of his presidency, what did Congress do? Flee in terror of taking a stand before November elections.
After a couple of hours of debate each, both the House and Senate tacked a mealy-mouthed approval of the training and arming of “moderate” Syrian rebels — they can be found hanging out with unicorns and leprechauns — onto a continuing budget resolution and promptly adjourned until safely past Election Day, when they won’t face any troublesome questions from voters.
It’s hard to say which is more astonishing, the Nobel Peace Prize president’s contention that he can blow the devil out of any country he wants without asking anybody’s approval, or Congress’ abject refusal to get involved.
The Constitution is quite clear that only Congress has the power to declare war. Though presidents, for political reasons, have shied away from requesting formal declarations of war (there hasn’t been one since the outbreak of World War II, more than seven decades ago), they have generally asked for congressional approval for any military action expected to last more than a few weeks.
As a senator, Obama was a strong believer in congressional authority on warmaking, even introducing a resolution to halt the war in Iraq. As president? Well, not so much. He sent Congress a letter saying he already has authority to attack the Islamic State based on the congressional resolutions George Bush got for his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Seriously. Obama is basing his authority on a 13-year-old law allowing the president to take military action against “those responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11” and a 12-year-old law that cites “Iraq’s continuing weapons of mass destruction” as a reason to invade. (The latter, by the way, was denounced by Sen. Obama as a blank check for “a dumb war, a rash war, a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”)
Obama apparently was taking no chances that Congress would turn balky, as it did last year when he wanted to bomb the Syrian government troops who will now be his unacknowledged allies in the war against the Islamic State.
But he needn’t have worried.
Though Congress doesn’t want to be blamed the next time the Islamic State beheads an American on the Internet, it also doesn’t want to accept responsibility for another war that will turn out to be long and, eventually, unpopular.
When the first President Bush wanted to invade Iraq the first time, in 1991, Congress accepted his invitation to say yea or nay and scheduled three full days of debate on the floor.
When George W. Bush wanted authority for a second invasion in 2002, Congress worked over the resolution for more than a month.
Obama’s war? A single afternoon of procedural votes. When presidential candidates start pointing fingers at one another in 2016 for America’s state of endless war, remember that this was a bipartisan profile in cowardice.