The Presidency, Congress and war powers


U.S. Representative Richard Nugent (R-Brooksville)

U.S. Representative Richard Nugent (R-Brooksville)What many people may have missed is that Congress did not vote on the question of whether or not to authorize the President to continue air strikes in Iraq.

In general, as a matter of constitutional power, the President cannot declare war or embark on a war without the explicit authorization of Congress. As a response to Vietnam, Congress passed into law a bill known as the “War Powers Resolution”.

Guide to war powers outlined

In the simplest terms, the War Powers Resolution recognizes that in certain cases, a president may need to act swiftly to defend American interests.

Consequently, under the law, if the President elects to commence with military action, he is required to notify Congress of that action. That starts a clock. The President is permitted to conduct operations for 60 days.

If Congress does not vote to authorize further action, the President has thirty more days to cease military action and withdraw our forces. At any point during that 60-day period, Congress can vote to end military action immediately.

It’s generally a pretty good compromise that preserves the proper constitutional roles of the two branches … so long as Congress chooses to enforce it.

The Libya 'clock'

In the case of Libya, the President chose not to provide Congress with official notice (starting the clock), nor did he feel like he needed to abide by the clock when some members of Congress (myself included) spoke out saying he was required to.

In any case, the air campaign ended relatively quickly and the issue receded from people’s minds. I haven’t forgotten it.

The Iraq clock

So when Congress received a letter from the President officially noticing that, pursuant to the War Powers Resolution, he had started the clock on military action in Iraq, I was both surprised and encouraged.

Here was an opportunity to do this the right way. Surely Congress would take advantage of this constitutional “olive branch” and fulfill its end of the bargain.

So imagine my dismay when word came down from on high that Congress would be passing on the opportunity to vote on the air strike authorization. Congress, it seems, believes the President already has the authority to conduct those strikes. Now, so does the President.

I do not believe that is the case.

In my opinion, matters of war (and the power to declare and prosecute war) are one of the most fundamentally important issues a nation must wrestle with. To simply shrug and allow a President to pursue a war without the proper authorization creates a dangerous precedent. The fact that the specific military action is popular (or not) does not absolve us of our constitutional responsibilities.

This is all a very long way of saying that I was extremely disappointed that Congress decided to take a pass on addressing the War Powers issue.

As a more specific policy question, I also have serious reservations about arming these so-called “vetted” opposition groups. To be clear, it is extremely hard once these weapons and tactics go out the door to track them or control them.

We know very well that some members of the Free Syrian Army have defected to ISIL. We know that an al-Qaeda affiliate is also heavily involved in the fighting.

We’ve spent billions and billions of dollars training and equipping the Iraqi Army. When they abandoned their posts in the fight against ISIL, the terrorists were all too happy to collect those very weapons.

I live every day with the reality that any decisions I make regarding war policy may very well affect my own sons. That fact makes it easier to stay focused on the reality that the decisions we make regarding war policy affect the sons and daughters of Americans all across this country.

As I have told a number of my colleagues this week, the strategy that the President has laid out would make a wonderful thesis paper for somebody’s masters degree.

But when that “thesis” is projected onto the ground in Iraq and Syria, the realities don’t support the theory. The President has proclaimed that the Iraqis have now formed an “inclusive government”.

The obvious implication he’s making is that the minority Sunnis in the Iraqi military will now stand shoulder to shoulder with their Shiite brothers and fight ISIL head on.

The same goes for the “coalition” he is building with a variety of partners in the region. The Saudis have offered to host the Syrian rebels for training, but have not agreed to send troops to battle ISIL. Turkey has pledged “support” but won’t allow us to use their bases to conduct our air strikes.

This is the reality on the ground.

Half measures

I see this arming and training proposal as a dangerous half-measure. The idea that we can take months (or years) to train up an indigenous fighting force to battle ISIL (and simultaneously the Syrian Army) is preposterous.

Both ISIL and the Syrian government are highly trained and organized armies. And I don’t expect that they will stay static while we train this much smaller force that we hope will fight effectively on two fronts. ISIL will continue growing stronger during that time.

The administration needs to own up to these realities. They need to be able to articulate what success looks like and how they will measure it.

Yesterday, in a hearing with Secretary of Defense Hagel, one of my colleagues on the Armed Services Committee asked that very question. The Secretary’s best response was “when there are no more beheadings”. He couldn’t be more specific than that.

Congress' Constitutional role

I believe that Congress has an important constitutional role to play here. We need to consider the facts and have a robust debate about the President’s plan. We need to hear specifics on what resources the President thinks will be required.

Right now, we don’t have the answers and we aren’t having the debate.

I cannot, in good conscience, vote to authorize a train and equip mission that I believe will do more harm than good in the long term. I also cannot roll over and give up on our responsibility to authorize the air strikes. We owe our troops, our citizens, and our allies better than that. When Congress returns, I expect to see that we deliver.

Rich Nugent
Member of Congress