Congress and Obama must define war against Islamic State


The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, Nov. 22:

More than a week after the massacre in Paris, the people Americans pay to exert leadership against mortal foes instead are distractedly squabbling among themselves. Many members of Congress and the president who once sat among them focus their public energy and urgency not on Islamic State, but on each other. Some presidential candidates of both major parties are proving similarly feckless about how robustly to wage an unorthodox war we’re already fighting.

So far this is more a missed opportunity for the preoccupied politicians than it is a new crisis of confidence among citizens. But stir in additional terrorist assaults and Americans will intensify two blindingly obvious questions that nobody at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue has properly answered: Who on Earth is responsible for defeating (no, not containing) this vicious, capable enemy of liberal civilization? And what are the lengths and limits of this nation’s role in that fight?

President Francois Hollande and the forces of France are spearheading the war he has declared against Islamic State. We applaud the successful tactics to apprehend plotters and disrupt working plots. The death of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Moroccan-born Belgian citizen who appears to have masterminded the Paris attacks, is cold comfort, but we’ll take it.

Not that France’s muscular response halted all high-profile terrorist assaults. Friday’s hostage-taking and slaughter at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, added an unhelpful dimension: Two groups, one affiliated with al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for that bloodshed. Was this intramural competition with Islamic State? Some unlikely collusion among rivals in its timing? Or just further evidence that Islamist extremism is enjoying a still unrelieved growth phase?

Hollande is shopping for aggressive warriors in Washington, Moscow and beyond. Beijing, too, wants a piece of Islamic State. To read the headlines, you’d think this is the only world war in which most of the world is on one side.

Yet the U.S. discussion sounds less driven by national security than by national politics. Dueling House and Senate members yearn to dwell on partisan talking points — hawkish, dovish, exclusionary, welcoming — in an election cycle. And a president fast approaching civilian life visibly resents a war that threatens his preferred legacy.

The issue of resettling refugees here is important on many levels. But it’s not the only important issue, or the most time-sensitive. We support a pause in that process so FBI Director James Comey and others responsible for the vetting process can address shortcomings they have identified. Improving that process doesn’t have to make it interminable for families who have Islamic State and other terrorists — Syria’sBashar Assad included — to blame for their suffering and tumult.

President Barack Obama, who long has tried to straddle but not solve Syria, last week belittled critics of his military, diplomatic and refugee policies. We wish he and the most animated of those critics would end their stubborn petulance. For starters, he should be ahead of the House legislation that drew 47 Democrats to join Republicans in a demand for more scrutiny of refugees from Syria and Iraq.

This is not sound legislation. It requires the personal certification of the secretary of homeland security, the director of the FBI and director of national intelligence on the safety of accepting each and every refugee. That would be a distraction from the broad duties they have to gather intelligence and protect this nation.

Obama’s first step should be to ask why so many Democrats who’ve taken so many tough votes for him bucked him on this one. His second step should be to execute his own refugee policy fix. Don’t wait for Congress to force you, Mr. President. Get ahead of it.

Washington is embarrassingly disunited, officially directionless — and at war. Obama pledged in a September 2014 speech to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State. He alone has set war policy.

And Congress? We wrote after his speech that many members were scared of a vote that could boomerang. What many Americans would see as Senate and House members doing their jobs, many Senate and House members see as political damage waiting to happen:

Liberal Democrats feared eventual deployment of ground troops; conservative Republicans didn’t trust Obama to aggressively wage war. The White House said that, owing to post-9/11 congressional action aimed at al-Qaida, Obama didn’t need additional authority. Yet he also said he would welcome congressional “buy-in” against Islamic State. He feared that as bombs fell, Congress might reject a broad resolution authorizing use of force in Syria and Iraq. Then what would he do?

Americans and potential allies perplexed about what the U.S. is doing Over There grew even more confounded early this year: With the 2014 election over, Obama asked Congress to authorize use of force against Islamic State — but also asked Congress to tie his hands by forbidding “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” And he wanted a three-year expiration of that resolution, tying the hands of the next president as well. Didn’t happen.

We’ve instead asked Congress to give this president and future presidents a full-throated, bipartisan commitment. We reiterate that point post-Paris because (1) it is lawmakers’ solemn responsibility to authorize wars, and (2) setting goals and limits for this fight would focus politicians and all Americans on winning it.

A third reason that we can’t state too often: If presidents and members of Congress are willing to watch young Americans fight for this country, those officials ought to formally accept the less dangerous job of standing with them.

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(c)2015 Chicago Tribune

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