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How long are we going to be conducting air strikes against the ISIS insurgents in Iraq? On Saturday, President Obama made it clear that this depends on how long it takes for Iraqis to form an "inclusive government" that commands enough support to mount its own military offensive. Iraq's problem, he said, is first and foremost a political one. Until that's addressed, American air strikes are just a stopgap.
Fair enough. Still, how about an answer to the question?
Q Mr. President, for how long a period of time do you see these airstrikes continuing for? And is your goal there to contain ISIS or to destroy it?
THE PRESIDENT: I’m not going to give a particular timetable, because as I’ve said from the start, wherever and whenever U.S. personnel and facilities are threatened, it’s my obligation, my responsibility as Commander-in-Chief, to make sure that they are protected. And we’re not moving our embassy anytime soon. We’re not moving our consulate anytime soon. And that means that, given the challenging security environment, we’re going to maintain vigilance and ensure that our people are safe.
....Q Is it possible that what you’ve described and your ambitions there could take years, not months?
THE PRESIDENT: I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks, if that’s what you mean. I think this is going to take some time....I think part of what we’re able to do right now is to preserve a space for them to do the hard work that’s necessary. If they do that, the one thing that I also think has changed is that many of the Sunni countries in the region who have been generally suspicious or wary of the Iraqi government are more likely to join in, in the fight against ISIS, and that can be extremely helpful. But this is going to be a long-term project.
In other words, Obama is claiming that he's (a) protecting our consulate in Erbil, and (b) that protecting American embassies is a constitutional responsibility, which is what gives him the authority to continue the air offensive.
This is a problem because, let's face it, in practically every war zone in the world there's an American embassy or some American citizens who can be colorably said to be in danger. If that's all it takes to justify long-term military action, then the president really does have a free hand to mount military campaigns anywhere, anytime, and for any reason.
I believe that Obama has truly become more skeptical about the effectiveness of American military power since he first took office. But that's not enough. If he really wants to make a difference, he should use this opportunity to explicitly weigh in on the side of the War Powers Act. This wouldn't legally bind future presidents to do the same, but it would set a precedent that would make the WPA more difficult to ignore. And it shouldn't be hard for Obama, who specifically addressed the issue of air strikes in 2007 and did so in no uncertain terms: "The President," he said, "does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."
Obama should use this opportunity to definitively acknowledge that the War Powers Act is binding on the president; that it applies to situations like this; and that therefore he needs congressional authorization to continue air strikes beyond 60 days. It's the right thing to do for both the executive branch, which should not have unconstrained warmaking powers, and for the legislative branch, which should be required to carry out its constitutional duties instead of merely whining about executive actions without ever having to commit itself to a course of action.
It's not too late to do this. But it will be soon.