The way Congress has acted on ISIS is cowardly—and it needs to stop

President Richard Nixon abolished the draft in 1973, and now one Democrat wants to bring it back.

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Congressman Charlie Rangel, the octogenarian with the erratically pitched Harlem accent, came out in favor of mandatory selective service in the fight against ISIS last week. “It should be something that forces us to think. What could clear your mind better?” he said.

Rangel, always the showman, knows the draft will never be reinstated. He’s more interested in calling out his fellow members of Congress for voting for military action while they’re simultaneously holding it at arm’s length. “If it’s national security, you’ve got to feel it,” he said.

That sums up our dilemma with ISIS pretty well. Congress and the president want to go to war, but they don’t want voters to feel it—or even to notice.

Start with the fact that some administration officials refuse to acknowledge that the United States is going to war with ISIS at all. Two weeks ago John Kerry called our actions a “very significant counter-terrorism operation.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest later contradicted Kerry, but still chose his words gingerly, saying America was “at war with ISIL in the same way we are at war with al Qaeda and al Qaeda affiliates all around the globe.”

Thus the administration won’t seek a congressional declaration of war, choosing instead to rely on the musty Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed after 9/11. This prompted gales of laughter from lawyers, who pointed out that the AUMF that targets al Qaeda can’t be used to target ISIS, given that ISIS broke away from al Qaeda and al Qaeda denounced ISIS.

But no matter. Congress wasn’t going to raise its voice anyways. They were, however, required to vote on the president’s latest plan to arm the so-called moderate Syrian rebels. They accomplished this by sneaking it through attached to a bill funding the government like it was an earmark from the days of yore. This is what Congress has come to: war as legislative corollary, as casual afterthought.

The need for Congress to vote on a separate resolution was the rare issue that united John McCain and Rand Paul. Paul said the Senate’s actions were “inexcusable” and McCain called it “an act of cowardice.” He’s right, they are cowards. Twenty percent of laws passed by Congress are bills that name post offices, Stephen Colbert has testified before a congressional committee, but The World’s Greatest Legislative Body, as our lawmakers never hesitate to call themselves, can’t be bothered to have a debate about an impending war.

That debate might influence the election, after all, and nobody wants that. This isn’t even about senators trying to avoid an unpopular vote—polls show the public is supportive of military action against ISIS. Lawmakers just don’t want to deal with anything that changes the campaign landscape in any way. This is how our elected leaders operate now: serious issues can’t be debated during election season, and election season is 24 months long.

Thus the president will never admit to putting “boots on the ground” in Iraq, but has deployed 440 “advisors” with more sure to come. (The advisors are hoofing around Irbil in flip-flops, apparently.) In the meantime our weapon of choice is airstrikes. These have proven effective; already American bombs have helped scatter ISIS fighters in the Kurdish north and driven jihadists out of the all-important Mosul Dam.

But airstrikes alone won’t destroy ISIS. Ideology-fueled terrorist groups are far more durable than that. After 9/11 America went to war against the Taliban—real war, with boots on the ground and everything—and supposedly drove them out of Afghanistan. And yet, as Micah Zenko points out, over the past decade the Taliban has perpetrated more terrorist attacks than any other group in the world.

A brutal onslaught of American power wasn’t enough to dislodge the Taliban. But somehow we’re going to obliterate ISIS with congressional authorization that isn’t authorization, boots on the ground that aren’t boots, and a war that isn’t a war.

America can’t act cosmetically. If Congress and Obama really think we should destroy ISIS, they need to stop treating war like a hot potato, juggling it around while offering loud assurances that everything will be painless. And voters need to stop falling for it. We need to take a deep look at ourselves and consider what the president is really proposing: years of bitter war that will require nothing less than remaking the Middle East into something less hospitable to terrorism. And if we decide this is what we must do, then we should stop gussying it up.

The problem is we already have a model of what happens when we try to change Iraq, which has left a bitter taste in the mouth of the public. Will they support a second prolonged trip into Mesopotamia? Who knows, but they should at least get a proper vote from their representatives.

What do you think?

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