'Act of War': Will Congress finally vote to declare war on ISIS, after Paris attacks?

The Republican presidential candidate weighs in


“It is an act of war that was committed by a terrorist army,” declared French President Francois Hollande about the chute of terror that flooded the streets of Paris on Friday night.

There it is. That word. “War.” And those words. “Act of war.”

Sophisticated world leaders such as Hollande tread lightly around these terms. There is a special time and a place for them. But Hollande left no doubt Friday.

“It is an act of war that was prepared, organized and planned from abroad, with complicity from the inside,” Hollande said. He made no bones that “a jihadist army, Daesh” was responsible. “Daesh” is the Arabic abbreviation for ISIL or ISIS, whichever you prefer.

“France, because it was foully, disgracefully and violently attacked will be unforgiving with the Barbarians from Daesh,” Hollande added.

And there lies the question. How will France challenge these thugs? How will the United States and the rest of its allies combat them? Talk is cheap. Prayers and “Je Suis Charlie” and flowers and candlesticks outside the French Embassy in Washington are all nice. But what is the U.S. willing to do?

“There should be no doubt that ISIL poses a direct threat to the United States,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz.  “If the administration does not get more serious about combating it, our nation and our people will pay a grave price.”

“They are at war with us,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on Fox. “This will be coming to America.”

There’s little doubt a “war” is on between radical Muslim terrorists and the West. And “this” has already come to America. 9/11. The Boston Marathon. Fort Hood. Foiled plots in Times Square and at LAX. An attempted shoe bomber. An attempted underwear bomber. Two separate sting operations netting suspects who aimed to blow up the U.S. Capitol.

“War” may have been declared by one side as Hollande and Cruz suggest. But not by the other. So that question rages on Capitol Hill: must Congress “declare war” or, at the very least, approve an authorization that grants the president and the Pentagon authority outlined in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution to take the fight to the enemy?

As Syria deteriorated in August, 2013, President Obama floated the idea of updating the calcified 2001 and 2002 resolutions that Congress approved after 9/11 and prior to the most recent war in Iraq.

The legislative effort never got off the ground. Obama could never come within a stone’s throw of mustering the necessary votes to authorize military action. ISIL’s influence then grew and Obama reverted to simply notifying Congress “consistent with” the 1973 War Powers Resolution of various U.S. military exploits against the emerging ISIL threat in Iraq and parts of Syria.

The president can sometimes circumvent Congress under his constitutional powers as “commander in chief.” Today the U.S. regularly bombs ISIL targets. It appears to have knocked out “Jihadi John” with a drone strike this week. Troops are on the ground and the president just dispatched additional forces to the region a few days ago.

This is a muddled, sub-constitutional netherworld. Is the U.S. at war? It looks like war. And if Congress hasn’t voted to declare war or certify some military operation, then is this risk to the U.S. really as great as many suggest? Though Congress hasn’t voted to “declare war” since 1942, it has elected to do so on five occasions since the beginning of the republic.

Recently retired House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, repeatedly called on Obama to send Congress an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to fight ISIL. When the AUMF finally arrived months later, Boehner did not act upon it. Months after that, he asked the president to send another one.

The bottom line is the same as it was in the late summer of 2013: Congress can’t corral the votes to approve an AUMF. Some want tighter parameters. Others want looser parameters. Some fret about the money. Others believe the move would project the U.S. onto a treadmill of “endless war.”

After the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, lawmakers don’t want to be on the hook voting for another war. By the same token, they don’t want make the wrong call and vote against war should a resolution hit the floors of the House and Senate.

So Congress remains in this glaciated state, afraid of war, wanting war. But not really doing much about it.

To be fair, part of the problem centers on whom the U.S. should fight? Certainly there is “territory” involved, occupied by ISIL in Syria and Iraq.

But this conflict is asymmetric. Obama got himself into hot water this week when he told ABC “our goal has been first to contain (ISIL) and we have contained them.” Obama added there is no “systematic march by ISIL across the terrain” and that “they have not gained ground in Iraq.”

That’s because this is not so much a battle over real estate -- but over hearts, minds and ideology.

In October, 2003, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld penned a memo asking a seminal question: “Are we capturing, killing or dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”

Rumsfeld’s inquest is somewhat rhetorical. But it slices to the heart of the fight. Rumsfeld testified at a hearing of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee in mid-May 2004. This was on the heels of the release of disturbing photographs from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The detention facility was home to numerous human rights violations engineered by the U.S. Army and CIA against Iraqi prisoners. Officials feared that the inhumane treatment of Iraqis at the prison would blossom as a global recruiting tool for radicals and jihadist.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, lit into Rumsfeld, pirouetting his touchstone question back at the Defense secretary.

“Are our mistakes in Iraq sowing the seeds for a whole new crop of terrorists, in Iraq and also in other countries? How do you answer the question you posed last October, today?” Leahy asked.

Nobody truly has the answer to this. But one can certainly speculate.

Maybe a congressional “war” declaration or the approval of an AUMF isn’t the way to go after all. How does one combat an ideology? A belief? Perhaps this isn’t a conventional war that demands a conventional response. The U.S. has certainly approached this in a conventional way -- sending troops to the region and flying regular bombing sorties. Still, the U.S. has mounted a “measured” front against ISIL, not plunging in feet first. That’s partly because of Iran/Afghanistan fatigue and the reluctance of Congress to get directly involved.

Certainly congressional Republicans have chastised the president for “not having a strategy” to fight ISIL. But few are willing to offer a concrete blueprint themselves.

Remember, this is a Congress dominated by Republicans in both chambers who howl constantly about Obama abusing his constitutional authority and pine to reassert the rights of the legislative branch.

Maybe the U.S. in fact effectively “declared” war just by dispatching forces, even if that doesn’t match the requirement mandated by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. Signing off on something in the House and Senate could actually inflame the situation further. That said, a vote for war or an AUMF would undoubtedly focus the public and the U.S. on the seriousness of the situation.

There is no question there is a war on. And just not because Hollande says it is. And just because Congress votes to “declare” war or approve an AUMF -- or fails to do so -- doesn’t mean they’re any closer to winning anything. Especially when it’s a battle not for turf -- but for hearts and minds.

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, argued Saturday that ISIS in the past two weeks has claimed responsibility for the attacks in Paris and Beirut and the bombing of a Russian airliner.

"The fight is quickly spreading outside Iraq and Syria, and that’s why we must take the battle to them," she said. “I strongly believe we need to further increase our efforts in Syria and Iraq directly and expand our support to partner nations in other countries where ISIL is operating. It has become clear that limited air strikes and support for Iraqi forces and the Syrian opposition are not sufficient to protect our country and our allies."