If President Obama wants to go on bombing the Islamic State, he ought to ask Congress for a declaration of war. It’s possible he won’t, but whether he does or he doesn’t, when the Republican majority is seated, it ought to give him one. There’s a lot at stake. More than meets the eye.
The Constitution imbues Congress with 18 powers; among them, the “power . . . to declare war.” This power belongs exclusively to Congress, and — though the Constitution designates the president “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy” — Congress doesn’t have to be asked by the president to declare war. If Congress supports military action against ISIS, it ought to say so, and send its declaration to Mr. Obama’s desk. (If Congress is skittish, it can write a declaration that makes it clear the impetus for war came from the president.) Congress would thereby save Obama, and the country, from a tricky legal situation, and that would be good for everyone. But there’s a bigger picture.
Turning away from ISIS: Last week, while the president was in China, the People’s Liberation Army debuted its new J-31 stealth fighter — a cyber-theft copy of our F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Meanwhile, Russian bombers have been patrolling the Gulf of Mexico and circling Guam, and probing Europe’s air defenses on a near-daily basis. According to Pravda, Russia is preparing a “nuclear surprise for NATO” — “As for tactical nuclear weapons, the superiority of modern-day Russia over NATO is even stronger. The Americans are well aware of this. They were convinced before that Russia would never rise again. Now it is too late.”
China has just finished building an air base on an island it doesn’t own in the international waters of the South China Sea. Russia has annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, and moved tens of thousands of troops to its borders with the Baltic states. Japan may delete the defense-only clause from its constitution and fully re-arm for the first time since the Second World War, in case it has to go to war with China over uninhabited islands that both countries claim. For the first time since the Second World War, Germany wants to start flexing its military muscle; according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (a very important, conservative German paper), Germany is bidding “farewell to the post-war German self-diminution in foreign and security policy.” Nonetheless, Poland is moving its army away from its German border, toward its eastern border, in case it needs to go to war with Russia. North Korea has nuclear weapons, and if we do nothing, Iran will soon have nuclear weapons too.
And in the United States, we’re cutting the defense budget.
According to a Defense Department news release, if the sequestration budget cuts continue past the coming fiscal year, “the Army would be reduced to 420,000 active duty soldiers.” That’s smaller than it has been at any time since the Second World War. (See a trend here?) “The Marine Corps would drop to 175,000 active duty personnel. The Air Force would have to eliminate its entire fleet of KC-10 tankers and shrink its inventory of unmanned aerial vehicles. The Navy would be forced to mothball six destroyers and retire an aircraft carrier and its associated air wing. . . . The services would acquire 17 fewer joint strike fighters, five fewer KC-46 tankers, and six fewer P-8A [anti-ship, anti-submarine] aircraft. There would also be sharp cutbacks in many smaller weapons programs and funding for military construction. . . . Sequester level budgets would result in a military that is too small to fully meet the requirements of its strategy, thereby significantly increasing national security risks both in the short- and long-term.”
You might think President Obama is responsible for these cuts, but you’d be dead wrong: “It isn’t the secretary of defense or the president doing this,” said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. “It isn’t me cutting the budget. . . . It’s the Congress’s decision on sequestration.”
Another of Congress’s 18 powers is the power “To raise and support Armies,” and, as a matter of course, Congress must allocate money for any war it declares, as a supplement to the peacetime budgets of the Army, et al.
So, Congress has a chance to make things right. When the Republicans take over in January, they should give the president what he wants — or what he says he wants — or what Hagel says he wants: a resolution authorizing force against ISIS, and, to pay for it, an end to all military sequestration cuts.
Write your congressman.
— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.