When a centrist Democrat, a Republican hawk, a libertarian, and a tea partier all find common ground on Capitol Hill, it's worth noting this rare outbreak of bipartisan consensus. Sens. Tim Kaine, James Inhofe, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz all believe the White House should seek new approval from Congress for U.S. military operations in Iraq. President Obama should give the senators exactly what they are requesting.
As Obama said during a press conference earlier this week, the administration is already closely consulting Congress on the Iraq crisis, because when confronting a threat like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the United States needs to show a united front. ISIS's brutal execution of American journalist James Foley is just the latest atrocity that has clarified the growing threat posed by what is arguably the most powerful terrorist group in history.
"The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people. We will be vigilant and we will be relentless. When people harm Americans anywhere, we do what's necessary to see that justice is done and we act against ISIL, standing alongside others," Obama said this morning in comments about Foley's execution. Even as he spoke, Pentagon officials confirmed that they are contemplating sending additional U.S. troops to Iraq, to help secure Baghdad. "From governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread," Obama said.
And yet acting under existing authorities in Iraq, the administration's response to the spread of the ISIS cancer has so far been reactive and piecemeal, constantly ceding the initiative to the ISIS extremists. When explaining U.S. airstrikes that enabled Iraqi and Kurdish forces to recapture the Mosul Dam in his press conference, for instance, Obama said he was acting to protect U.S. personnel in the Baghdad embassy hundreds of miles away. Really? Such tortured explanations of the logic behind the use of U.S. military force may comport with the commander in chief's constitutional authority to protect American citizens. They sound an uncertain trumpet to allies in the region, however, who are desperate for U.S. leadership.
The resignation of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki represents a victory for the Obama administration, and it should be exploited. Throughout the crisis senior administration officials rightly insisted that increased U.S. assistance would be contingent on the formation of a national unity government in Baghdad that did not include the divisive Shiite strongman. Now that Maliki is out of the way, President Obama has to decide on the quantity and quality of that assistance.
To have any hope of holding Iraq together, and making good on President Obama's promise this week to "pursue a long-term strategy to turn the tide against [ISIS]," U.S. military support to the Iraqi Security Forces will have to be significant. Put simply, the administration needs to articulate a strategy for Iraq, and settle on a plan for executing it that is backed at home and understood in Iraq and the region.
Some congressional leaders want a say in such an important decision, and they have a point. Washington is overdue for a serious debate about what U.S. national interests are threatened by the Iraq crisis. Far better for lawmakers to debate the stakes involved in Iraq now, and to put down a marker, rather than ducking the issue and heaping endless criticism on the administration for "mission creep," "unilateralism," and presidential "imperialism." That is a prescription for continued administration tentativeness and the kind of feckless leadership for which Washington, unfortunately, is gaining a global reputation.
"This is not about an imperial presidency. It's about a Congress that's reluctant to cast tough votes on U.S. military action," Kaine, the Virginia Democrat, told The New York Times this week. "We should not be putting American men and women's lives at risk if we are not willing to do the political work to reach a consensus that it's necessary."