One of the downsides of this seemingly never-ending presidential campaign is that it’s easy to forget that there is an incumbent president and Congress who will still be in office for another nine months. With so much attention focused on Trump, Cruz, Kasich, Clinton and Sanders, current events occupying President Obama and Congress can take a back seat. That is a problem with dangerous implications both for the current president and his successor.
On Monday, Obama announced plans to send up to 250 Special Forces soldiers to Syria, where they would join 50 troops already there. The president explained that these forces would not be “leading the fight [against ISIS] on the ground,” but would play an important role in training and assisting local fighters in the battle against ISIS. Obama added that the new troops could play a key role in building on recent military success against ISIS.
On the surface, this might sound unobjectionable. Why not send more troops to help in the fight against ISIS — especially if this can be done with a relatively limited deployment of Special Forces rather than tens of thousands of U.S. infantry soldiers? ISIS is, without question, a dangerous and terrifying organization. Recent reporting indicates that U.S. airstrikes have killed as many as 25,000 ISIS fighters in ISIS and Syria, helping Iraqi and Kurdish forces to win back significant territory from the terrorist group. However, ISIS remains a threat, especially as it launches terrorist attacks, including recent ones in Brussels and Istanbul. Adding troops to support the fight against ISIS sounds reasonable.
But accepting the premise that Obama’s decision to send more troops to Syria is a good idea (or, as Sen. John McCain suggested, that Obama should go even further) misses the point. Congress must play a role in the decision to use military force against ISIS, which includes but is not limited to the decision to send more troops to Syria.
The United States has been involved in a military campaign against ISIS for nearly two years, though Congress has never provided authorization for the fight. That raises a constitutional problem: As Obama acknowledged when he first ran for the White House, the president cannot unilaterally take military action unless he or she is ordering the use of military force to respond to a direct emergency threat against the U.S. As hideous as ISIS is, it fortunately has not, to date, posed an imminent threat to the United States itself. But Congress has failed to take any action to authorize the campaign against ISIS. When Obama did ask Congress to authorize the use of military force against ISIS — something the president only did months after he had already unilaterally ordered military operations to begin — Congress simply declined to take up the proposed legislation.
That is unacceptable — or it should be. Congress’s failure to act has allowed the president to wage an extraconstitutional military campaign. There is plenty of blame to go around. Obama has exceeded the constitutional limits of his power, and Congress has failed to exercise its constitutional responsibility to weigh in on military action and set limits on presidential authority.
Presidential candidates and members of Congress have responded to Obama’s plan to deploy more Special Forces in Syria by weighing in on the merits of the proposal. That leaves out some essential first questions: On what authority can the president send any troops to help in the fight against ISIS, and on what authority can he continue other military operations against ISIS? Congress is abdicating its responsibilities, which allows Obama to continue acting alone, based on the incorrect assumption that these decisions are his to make alone.
Obama recently acknowledged that the worst mistake of his presidency was failing to plan for the aftermath of his decision to use military force against Qaddafi, the former Libyan dictator, in 2011. The president acted unilaterally in Libya, as he has against ISIS. Each time, Congress failed to weigh in. The danger is clear: Although it may well make sense to use military force against ISIS, how do we know what the right approach is, and how do we know that past mistakes from earlier interventions won’t be repeated? In addition, are we comfortable with strengthening the unconstitutional precedent that presidents can use military force at their own discretion? It is well worth considering what that precedent could mean for a President Trump, Clinton, or Cruz. It’s just as important to urge Congress to take action and insist on playing its constitutional role.
Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. His book, "Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security," will be published in May 2016 by the University of Wisconsin Press.