It is distressing how little attention the media have paid to the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The campaign has been so widespread, cruel and brutal that Pope Francis has taken the unusual step of leaving open the possibility of a military intervention of some kind.
The recent beheadings of two American journalists, captured on video and posted by the Islamic State on the Internet, have dramatically changed public opinion in the United States. Americans now want to become involved, even if it means sending our armed forces back to a part of the world we just recently left.
The shift in public opinion has been led — or followed — by a shift in President Barack Obama’s approach. On Sept. 10, he announced a counterterrorism campaign against the Islamic State. Like the president and most Americans, I am in favor of forceful and effective action.
But President Obama, like many of his predecessors, also thinks it is solely his decision to make on our behalf. He announced that he has decided to “conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists.” He has already ordered 150 bombings in Iraq. Now, he said, “I will not hesitate to take action against (the Islamic State) in Syria, as well as Iraq.”
The action the president proposed was grave enough that he was moved to reflect on his own warrant for taking it. “I have the authority to address the threat,” he said. “As commander in chief, my highest priority is the security of the American people.” He added that he would “welcome congressional support” — not because it was necessary, but “in order to show the world that Americans are united.”
That is not the approach the framers laid down in our Constitution. Article II makes the president the commander in chief of the armed forces, in charge of waging war once it has begun. But Article I entrusts the power to declare war to Congress. There were good reasons for this.
First, as James Madison presciently observed, presidents will be more “interested in war” and more “prone to it” than Congress. For that very reason the framers put Congress in charge — to make the process of deciding slow, deliberative and difficult. “It should,” Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut said, “be more easy to get out of war, than into it.”
Second, the burden of war falls on ordinary people, who serve in the armed forces and pay taxes to support the effort. The framers created the House of Representatives as the voice of the people, elected directly by them every two years. They must have a say in committing the nation to an undertaking that affects them so seriously. That is why the Constitution also specifies that all bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House, and gives Congress the power to raise and support armies, and to provide and maintain a navy.
American presidents eager to expand their power, and members of Congress looking to shirk responsibility, have made the mistake of ignoring these principles before. The lesson of Vietnam is not that we should not fight, but that presidents should not begin wars unilaterally and then dare Congress to pull the plug on them afterward.
At the conclusion of that war, Congress enacted the War Powers Resolution. It says, in language that precisely covers this case, that if the president introduces our armed forces “into the … airspace … of a foreign nation, while equipped for combat,” he must get Congress’ permission within 60 days or else terminate his efforts.
The legitimacy of the process matters here. President Obama should seek permission from Congress for this war. And Congress should give it to him.
Garvey is the president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.