We know a lot more now than we did in 2001, when Congress authorized President George W. Bush to go to war against al-Qaida in the highly charged aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Since then and a later 2002 resolution to authorize the Iraq war, we’ve seen executive powers used well (the 2006 troop surge) and questionably (the Iraq war).
Today’s Middle East is a different place. Syria and Iraq, which were unitary states in 2002, are now places of civil war, overrun by Sunni extremists such as the Islamic State. On the other side, there is Iran and its Shiite proxies, Hezbollah and the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In light of the dramatic change in the political reality in the region, it makes sense for President Barack Obama to seek a fresh mandate to fight the Islamic State. Earlier this month he asked Congress for a new war-powers resolution but made clear that he was seeking authorization that would not lead to an “enduring offensive.” What exactly does that mean? As best we can tell, no one seems to know for sure.
Some on the right fear the president’s request is so restrictive that it will tie the military’s hands and prevent it from fulfilling the objectives of U.S. strategy. On the left, there are complaints that the wording of the request is vague and, despite the president’s pledge, offers a loophole that could lead to a full-scale ground war fought by American “boots on the ground.”
We hope that a vigorous discussion on Capitol Hill will encourage the administration to clarify its strategy in the Middle East. For example, we would like to know: Does the administration believe that the Islamic State can be defeated without American ground troops? The Islamic State’s recent loss to Kurdish forces of a stretch of a critical supply route shows that the jihadist militia is vulnerable. But can a regional coalition be made robust enough to take advantage of the momentum and make a meaningful contribution to the allied cause? How can these goals be met while at the same time restraining Iranian influence and its nuclear ambitions, hastening the end of the Assad regime and permanently weakening Hezbollah?
None of these questions has an easy answer. And there may be valid strategic reasons to keep some of the answers secret. Nonetheless, as a new chapter in U.S. involvement in the region appears to be opening, it is important that we get a better understanding of what the administration has in mind, and that we get at least some clear answers.