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Congress should face its responsibilities in ‘the long war’

An Indian Muslim man holds a banner during a protest against ISIS, an Islamic State group, and November’s Paris attacks, in New Delhi, India.
An Indian Muslim man holds a banner during a protest against ISIS, an Islamic State group, and November’s Paris attacks, in New Delhi, India. AP

After the terror in Paris, most Democrats and Republicans agree that America should end the Islamic State. Even socialist Democrat Bernie Sanders has called on America to lead a coalition to rid the world of this caliphate.

So one might think Congress would get around to actually declaring war against the proto-state that has terrorized France and Lebanon in the last month. So far, this hasn’t happened.

After President Barack Obama offered Congress in February a limited war resolution to authorize the airstrikes and special operations he ordered the previous August, Congress took a pass.

Now some lawmakers are looking to reopen this debate.

Sen. Lindsey Graham said last week he would soon introduce a new war resolution against the Islamic State.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told me he too was planning on introducing a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman of Schiff’s committee, told me he is open to a new vote on such an authorization.

The fact that these lawmakers are all open to declaring war — a war the United States has been fighting since August 2014 — is significant.

Nunes and Graham, like many in their party, say the president doesn’t need special legal authority for the new campaign because it’s covered by the AUMF Congress passed in 2001 against the perpetrators of 9/11.

Obama has made this argument as well. After all, al Qaeda created the first iteration of the Islamic State, before 2014.

Schiff, on the other hand, has argued the president does need a new AUMF because the Islamic State is no longer associated with al Qaeda and therefore a war against the Islamic State is no longer a response to 9/11.

Where Schiff and Nunes agree is on the importance of having the AUMF debate now.

A new AUMF that covers the Islamic State, al Qaeda and their allies would have benefits for those in Congress concerned about starting new wars (like Schiff) and those in Congress who worry the consensus to fight terrorists overseas has collapsed (like Nunes).

For the hawks, a new war resolution could get colleagues who were not legislators in 2001 on record to support “the long war.”

An open debate on all the actions the long war would entail — from drone strikes to electronic eavesdropping — would clarify the extraordinary powers Congress expects the president to use in order to keep the country safe.

To hold the vote while the horror of Paris is still fresh in the minds of Congress is an opportunity to give this long war a political legitimacy it now lacks.

For many, a new AUMF offers a chance for Congress to reassert its role in the war-making process.

Obama’s decision to rely on the 2001 AUMF for the current war in Syria and Iraq opens the door for future presidents to stretch its meaning even further.

A new AUMF, particularly if it includes a sunset clause, would force Congress to debate the war against jihadis every few years, ensuring the long war does not become a permanent war.

So far, Congress has been too divided on exactly what it wants this war to be.

When Obama presented his AUMF in February, Congress couldn’t agree on key questions like the war’s duration, scope and ground troops.

Whether this war is part of the long one that began after 9/11 should be debated and settled by a vote.

Instead, Congress has tacitly consented to the president’s war. It has declined to exercise its constitutional prerogative.

Eli Lake is a columnist for Bloomberg View.

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