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President Barack Obama's decision to ask Congress to formally authorize the use of force against the Islamic State, or ISIS, under the War Powers Act sparked the predictable partisan reactions, with Democrats complaining the proposed authority is too broad and Republicans fretting that there are too many strings attached. But both should at least give the president his due: It's time there was a national conversation about the scope of U.S. military involvement in the region.

President Obama has already taken military action against ISIS using a 13-year-old authority, the authorization President George W. Bush submitted prior to the war in Iraq, but that nearly 5-month-old campaign has chiefly been in the form of air strikes. The president doesn't contemplate a broad expansion into a new ground war — the proverbial boots on the ground — and his request even includes a ban on "enduring offensive ground combat operations."

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Do Americans want to commit to an endless war against "terrorism," as if one could fight against a strategy as opposed to a country or at least an identifiable group? We believe the answer to that question is no. Conversely, most people are appalled by ISIS and its brutal murders of innocent Americans and others, and they want to see Iraq, Syria or anywhere else ISIS or similar groups have operated set on a more stable, secure and human-rights-recognizing course of self-governance that rejects terrorism.

The question that leaves is, what is a reasonable expectation for military involvement in this quest? While the hawkish in Congress seem to reject any expectation of constraint on the Pentagon, the public has seen what an open-ended authorization leads to — 14 years of fighting (if one starts with the invasion of Afghanistan) with no end in sight.

And here's what really seems inconceivable. Critics are wailing that Mr. Obama's proposal puts a three-year time limit on this authority, leaving it up to Congress to determine at that future date whether the authority should be extended. This is hamstringing the military? This is giving comfort to the enemy? Washington routinely puts sunsets on every conceivable authorization, from tax increases and credits to the Patriot Act and assault weapons ban. Only someone who concludes that Congress is hopelessly dysfunctional — and will continue to be so for the next three years — could view this as a serious impediment (and even then, it's not like presidents have not found ways to work around the War Powers Act).

History suggests the folks on Capitol Hill are loath to deny a president whatever he wants militarily whenever they are asked. A three-year sunset is not only appropriate, but Congress should act further to put the post-9/11 War Powers Act authorization to fight al-Qaida on that same timetable. It's time to put an end to the blank-check approach and recognize that times have changed and the nation needs an oversight process that reflects this. That's not a sign of weakness or a lack of intestinal fortitude but a recognition that Congress has a role to play in the making of war.

Still, it is undeniably odd that President Obama seems more intent on recognizing the rightful authority of Congress than so many serving in that institution, a reversal of the long-standing trend. Surely, Richard Nixon is rolling in his grave, baffled that legislation pushed by a two-thirds majority in Congress in the wake of his secret bombing of Cambodia would now find such an advocate in the White House.

The irony is that whatever constraints Mr. Obama has offered or members of Congress will perhaps devise themselves will likely prove inadequate anyway. Such is the nature of a conflict when the enemy is not limited to one country or even one region or one leader. Drop a bomb on an ideology and you often get more recruits, more battlefronts, more militant attacks. We can't predict where the efforts to rein in ISIS will lead, but we see nothing wrong with Americans — through the authority of the men and women they elected to represent them in Congress — setting reasonable limits on Mr. Obama's use of military force to ensure, at the very least, that it is justified, effective and in the nation's best interests.

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