Congress needs debate on declaring war

Fmr. congresswoman: We need to up our game in fight against ISIS
Fmr. congresswoman: We need to up our game in fight against ISIS

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Fmr. congresswoman: We need to up our game in fight against ISIS 04:39

Story highlights

  • Jane Harman: Lawmakers owe American people special session to debate an updated authorization to use military force
  • Congress should embrace chance to show constituents why they deserve to keep their jobs, she says

Jane Harman is the director, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former Democratic member of Congress. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)With the passage of an omnibus spending bill, adult behavior may be breaking out in Congress. Now, as we prepare to enter the new year, members should not shirk their basic constitutional responsibility to declare war.

In January, they owe the American people a special session of Congress: a televised, bicameral debate on an updated authorization to use military force, known as an AUMF, covering the undeclared wars the United States has already been fighting across the Middle East.
President Barack Obama's remarks after the San Bernardino shooting may have been tepid, but his call to move an authorization to use force against ISIS was important. What he left out was detail, something that lawmakers have an opportunity to provide. In a presidential election season that looks to many like a race to the bottom, members in both parties should embrace the chance to show their constituents why they deserve to keep their jobs.
Jane Harman
Those who have pushed their colleagues on the AUMF debate deserve recognition for political bravery. That includes Sens. Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, Tim Kaine and Rand Paul, as well as Reps. Darrell Issa, Scott Rigell, Adam Schiff and Peter Welch. Now the question becomes whether Congress can build a consensus around one vision.
So far, what passes for debate has stalled thanks to divides over key questions, especially whether to limit any authorization with respect to time, space and the use of ground forces. The reality is that Republicans and Democrats are no closer to agreement on these issues than they were last February, when the President sent a largely impenetrable draft to the Hill. Indeed, toxic partisanship may be pushing them further apart.
A thoughtful compromise is required to break the gridlock -- a measure that would articulate a strategic framework. So, here's a suggestion: Congress should package the authorization to use military force against ISIS (and associated forces) with an AUMF to enforce the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran.
To be clear, this would not be an AUMF "against Iran," a difference worth emphasizing to avoid antagonism abroad. But it would ratify the American commitment -- endorsed by President Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and many Republicans -- to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb by any means necessary. Already, many have been troubled by Iran's violation of U.N. limits on its ballistic missile program, as well as by the White House's apparent willingness to tolerate it. This would allay those concerns.
What's more, the President says that containing Iran is part of a broader regional strategy to counter bad actors, including organizations like ISIS. Writing that vision into law, in a unified AUMF that details kinetic authorities throughout the region, would therefore be a powerful statement of policy and would reassure Republicans who doubt the President's commitment to American engagement in the Middle East.
Many lawmakers could also support provisions like those put forward by Schiff, a California Democrat, to reaffirm the President's authority to target al Qaeda, ISIS, and associated forces, replace the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, and create mechanisms for Congress to review the use of ground troops. And without limiting Obama's freedom -- or that of any future President -- to counter threats, reporting requirements suggested by Issa, a California Republican, could give Congress important oversight tools.
Obama may disagree with this vision. But if so, he owes Congress his own.
"When the facts change," John Maynard Keynes once said, "I change my mind." Since the last significant debate on authorizing military force, ISIS' supporters have downed an airplane, slaughtered dozens in the streets of Paris and gunned down 14 Americans in Southern California. By one new count, the group has doubled its foreign fighter recruitment in the last year. Surely Congress can set aside a week at the beginning of its next session to debate whether the United States' strategy needs to be reviewed.
Whether an AUMF passes or not, significant questions will remain. Can we counter ISIS' message more effectively? Should we close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay? Could more be done to get Sunni tribes and nations into the fight?
But a piecemeal debate on these issues does no one any favors. The right vehicle for a national conversation on the shape -- and costs -- of our war is a fresh AUMF. The right forum is the United States Congress. The right time is now.
It was impressive to see Britain's Parliament, which had opposed the use of force in Syria, debate the issue again, reconsider the stakes, and vote to change course. Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party, often a highly polarizing figure in the United Kingdom, deserves credit for allowing his lawmakers to vote their consciences on the issue of war. Today, Britain's hand is stronger because it speaks with one voice.
In the dismal din of this presidential election campaign, Congress should help the United States do the same.