Fight Islamic State the Right Way

Let's do this right.

Photographer: Ahmet Okatali/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

President Barack Obama is about to ask Congress to authorize a war he has been waging for six months. It's about time -- and Congress shouldn’t waste any as it takes up the question.

In the 13-plus years since the Sept. 11 attacks, two presidents have relied on three legal authorizations for the fight against Islamic terrorism: Article II of the Constitution, which makes the president commander in chief; the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force for Afghanistan; and the 2002 authorization for Iraq. (Hovering in the background of all this is the War Powers Act of 1973, which further defines Congress's constitutional right to declare war.)

President's War Powers

None of those is appropriate for the challenge that is Islamic State. The Constitution's vague language applies to direct threats to the U.S.; the War Powers Act involves strict congressional oversight that neither the White House nor Congress seems keen to exercise; and the two authorizations for military force were crafted for wars that have already ended or soon will. In any case, none contains the terms "Islamic State" or "Syria" -- or, for that matter, "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," "Yemen" or "Somalia," which have all seen U.S. drone attacks.

Yet both the president and Congress have been willing to live with this ambiguity for two years. It's easy to see why. The last thing this or any administration wants is any restrictions on its right or ability to wage war. And, for all the whining about being disrespected by the executive branch, senators -- Democrat and Republican alike -- don’t want to be on the hook for a war that hasn't gone terribly well and could get much worse.

So, good for the White House for taking the initiative. Now the question is what specifically it asks for. First, it needs to specify who the enemy is: Islamic State, of course, but also al-Qaeda and its various offshoots, and the Afghan Taliban -- as long as any of them are engaged in hostilities against the U.S. The new authorization should replace the 2002 measure on Iraq and make obsolete the one on Afghanistan, which has been an increasingly creaky justification for attacks in places such as Yemen and Somalia.

It should also, in the spirit of the War Powers Act, require the Obama administration to publish an unclassified list every 90 days of when and where it has confronted these hostile groups. The White House should keep the relevant congressional committees informed with more detailed, classified briefings.

And the new authorization should have an expiration date. The lack of a sunset clause in the outdated 2001 authorization is the main reason Congress has been able to avoid replacing it with something more apt. The White House is pushing for a three-year expiration, but that would push matters well into the next presidency. Better is 18 months, as suggested by Representative Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

And then there are a couple of things the new authorization should not do. One is to limit the battlefield to Iraq and Syria. That would reduce U.S. flexibility in fighting an enemy that respects no borders and is already threatening Jordan, Libya and other countries. Nor should the document constrain U.S. troops to specific roles such as special forces or ground advisers. Decisions about troop strength and roles are best made by the president and his military commanders based on what’s happening on the ground, not in legislation.

One of the defining features of the war that the U.S. has been waging since Sept. 11 is that the tactics, location and identity of the terrorist enemy are constantly shifting. Only the threat remains constant. To respond to it, the U.S. needs to give the commander in chief the necessary authority -- and its legislature needs to exercise the necessary oversight. That's the case for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force against Islamic State.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.