The President Obama many fellow Democrats have been looking for ever since his 2008 election may have shown up last week at the United Nations. His tough and direct call on the rest of the international community to step up to the challenge of global terrorism displayed a spine they have long felt missing in action.
Words, to be sure, are not action. But his demand that the rest of the world community put muscle behind its anti-terrorism rhetoric had a pointed intensity too often lacking in his previous preachings.
Backed this time by vigorous air strikes by American-led assaults on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, Mr. Obama stood on more credible ground, bolstered by at least the token participation of France and five Arab nations.
He also included in his forceful speech to the U.N. General Assembly a rallying cry to member states to rise to the deadly challenge of Ebola in Africa and reiterated U.S. concerns over Russian military moves in Ukraine. And in temporarily assuming the American seat on the Security Council and achieving unanimous support for collective action against the terrorist threat, he put his personal stamp on the effort in a bit of clever stagecraft.
The resolution provides international legal grounds for imposing travel restrictions on known or suspected terrorists attempting to enter or leave areas controlled by the Islamic State, "to prevent and suppress recruiting, organizing, transporting and equipping" them.
Implementing the resolution obviously requires much more than signing on to it in a televised U.N. showcase session. But at least Mr. Obama publicly demonstrated his oft-repeated intent to channel U.S. leadership through the international body, so conspicuously ignored in the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq.
At the same time, fellow Democrats at home and other Americans may well wonder why Mr. Obama is not showing the same disposition to put the war against the Islamic State and other threatening terrorist groups before the American Congress or debate and approval.
Instead, he is relying so far on disputed authority in the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for use of military force (AUMF) that approved President George W. Bush's responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and then his war of choice against Iraq. The latter, Mr. Bush acknowledged later, had been based on flawed intelligence concerning Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction, which were never found.
Critics have pointed out that the Islamic State didn't yet exist at those times and have argued that Mr. Obama should seek scrapping those outmoded resolutions and at least seek a new AUMF, as some members of Congress have proposed, as a legitimate underpinning for his new military undertakings in the Middle East. Instead he has merely conformed to the War Powers Act, which requires notification of Congress and the withdrawal of forces after a 60-day limit or a congressional extension.
The House and Senate have approved spending $500 million to retrain and equip Kurdish and Iraqi forces and Syrian insurgents to blunt the Islamic State's advances in lieu of American "boots on the ground," which Mr. Obama has ruled out.
But many members of Congress in both parties are insisting on and planning for a full-throated debate over Mr. Obama's new war against the Islamic State in a lame-duck session after the November midterm elections. Certain to be resurrected is the old but oft-disregarded constitutional stipulation that the power to declare war rests solely with Congress under Article I, Section. 8.
Academic scholars and some journalistic kibitzers have been beating their gums over the point since the junior Mr. Bush first started mobilizing for the Iraq invasion. His own legal eagles responded that the Constitution, in also designating the president as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, gave him sweeping powers to make war. They noted that not since FDR declared war after Pearl Harbor had Congress been called to do so in any of the numerous subsequent military actions.
The same remains true today. But with broad public doubts about the wisdom and tactics of Mr. Obama's new and more muscular initiatives against the Islamic State, such a congressional debate seems inevitable, and should be held, even in a demonstrably dysfunctional Congress.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.
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