WASHINGTON -- Most lawmakers appear content to let President Barack Obama set his own course battling the Islamic State, but a growing number are warning America could slip into a major new war by accident if Congress doesn’t act.
It’s a red flag being raised across the political spectrum. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told The Huffington Post recently that he'd "seen this movie before," when the United States slipped into wars in Vietnam and Korea, a comparison he made again last week. Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have both called the ongoing military actions illegal, and sought votes to define the effort. On the left, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) has warned the White House is embarking on another "endless war."
Another critic is Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) who argued in an interview Friday with The Huffington Post that Congress should not simply give Obama the $5.6 billion he’s seeking to fund operations against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, but should debate whether the United States should be engaging in an expanding war.
Like McCain, he points to previous wars that started small and then grew. And in this case, the White House is expanding military action in Iraq and Syria based on the 2001 authorization that Congress granted the executive branch to use force in hunting down those responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
“How many times does Congress have to make this mistake where we back into large-scale commitments by accident, without thought?” asked Welch, adding that since the current circumstances bear little relationship to the 9/11 attacks, it’s time for Congress to debate again what authority the president should have.
“The whole point of the authorization is to force Congress to have a debate on the really important question of what's required for national security interests,” Welch said.
Congressional aides involved with the funding request told HuffPost there is growing internal discussion about the need to hold a separate debate on war authority before handing the money over to Obama, but they said it still seemed most likely that Congress would simply approve the money and leave the war discussion for the next Congress.
Welch said that is a mistake on many fronts, especially because it leaves unanswered the question of what America’s goal is in targeting the Islamic State, and whether the mission is primarily one of counterterrorism aimed at denying safe havens for extremists, or one of Afghanistan- or Iraq-style nation-building.
Without some restriction from Congress, there’s little to stop the executive branch from pursuing whatever path it deems justifiable based on the 13-year-old post-9/11 authorization to use military force.
“If we give money that is going to end up being for training, for 3,000 troops on the ground, which is a sizable force, where there's no definition of what our ultimate objective is, where today it's ISIS, tomorrow it might be Khorasan, today it might be in Kurdistan, tomorrow in Anbar province, and the next day in Syria, there's an inevitable shifting of definition to meet the needs of the proponents of the original authorization.”
There is a significant difference of opinion among lawmakers who agree there should be a new authorization, however. Hawks such as McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) think it should be broad enough to let the White House maintain a decadeslong global war on terrorism. McCain says the United States needs to commit more aggressively to the effort, with boots on the ground. Others like Kaine and Welch think a new Authorization for Use of Military Force needs to be narrowly tailored and include time limits that will force the Congress and administration to re-examine the military efforts on a regular basis.
People like Welch are not sure it will come out in their favor.
"McCain does represent a point of view that I think does have a fair amount of support. I think it's totally wrong. It was wrong in Iraq, it's wrong in Afghanistan, and I think it would be wrong again. But we should debate that and vote on it," Welch said.
He added that it’s important for legislators to go on the record, so their constituents know where they stand and can hold them accountable. He suggested that the idea of accountability could influence the thinking of lawmakers who would just as soon duck taking a stand and leave the war in the hands of the Obama administration.
"In fact, I think that there's many in the Republican Party who see that the invasion of Iraq was a bad decision, nation-building in Afghanistan was an incredibly bad decision, and I think would be hesitant to have an open-ended commitment again in Iraq,” Welch said.
“You don't know, but however it came out, there would at least be a requirement that we have a debate about alternatives and that each one of us would be on record so that we could be held accountable by the people we represent,” he said.
Funding for the administration’s current efforts runs out Dec. 11, leaving Congress with a tight window to pass the new spending or consider the broader implications of funding an undefined military engagement.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.