The history of unilateral executive war-making in this country is not a case of presidential overreach but of congressional ducking of responsibility.

For example, President Obama was very unfairly criticized for not going ahead with his threat to bomb Syria if President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons. The president reasonably said that this would be an action that would justify an aerial attack, but when he asked Congress to authorize it, Congress refused, with Republican hawks doing little to get it adopted.

Sending legislation to Congress asking that they take action is an important step in re-establishing the principle that we should not be sending our military into combat – the most consequential decision we can make – without the fullest possible participation of our society, which specifically means that both Congress and the executive branch should concur. (Obviously the need to respond to a direct attack is an exception, but that is not an issue here.) But I do regret the fact that the president is only partially getting full deference to this important constitutional principle.

While I have some differences with the specifics of the president’s request for additional authority, he is correct in his use of air power against Islamic State and his disagreement with the Senate faction that is eager to send American ground troops back into Iraq and Afghanistan, and probably Syria as well. The argument that an American-coordinated air attack on the Islamic State murderers would be ineffective has been disproven. The intensive bombing has had good military effect, and it is one of the reasons that what many people thought was an irresistible march by the Islamic State throughout the region has been substantially slowed down.

One policy question now confronting Congress is whether we should go beyond leading this air attack and reassume the responsibility for establishing a coherent, effective government in Iraq. In addition, the Republican hawks also advocate using American ground troops in Syria, not simply to repel the Islamic State but in fact to liberate territory from the Assad regime – a task that the non-Islamic State opponents of Assad have been unable to accomplish on their own. This would carry with it responsibility to help govern that territory.

I would very much like to see the overthrow of Assad, with his regime being replaced by a reasonable coalition of Sunnis who do not share the fanaticism of the Islamic State. I would also be very happy to see an Iraqi government that could have effective control in its country and overcome the virulent Shia-Sunni hatreds, but it would be a grave error to assert an American responsibility to accomplish either task by the use of significant American combat troops in both countries.

America has a superb military, highly motivated, very well trained and equipped far beyond what any military force has brought to bear in the history of the world. That military can stop bad things from happening. But the best military in the world cannot make good things happen. It cannot go into either Syria or Iraq and end the series of feuds and hatreds and bring democracy, or even stability, to people consumed by the hatred of each other, who reject the notion of working together for the greater good.

The president’s proposed legislation does restrict “extended ground combat operations” and limit the authority to three years. But I share the view of many of my former colleagues in Congress who think these restrictions are not as well phrased as they should be, and I hope that there will be efforts to tighten them. Conceptually, the distinction between using air power to help in a battle against the Islamic State being waged by responsible Arab ground troops and having American troops directly involved on the ground in the effort to establish coherent governances in both those countries is a clear one, and the more the language in the resolution can reflect this, the better off we will be.

It is also important to reiterate the glaring inconsistency of the president’s Republican critics on this point. For many of them, the only acceptable resolution would be one that gave the president authority to do whatever he deemed appropriate: “You cannot restrain the commander in chief,” they argue. But in a democracy, it is essential to put restraints on the commander in chief to reflect societies view on what is appropriate. Once the battle is joined under whatever authority is given, members of Congress should not be directing military activity. But the notion that there needs to be autonomy for commanders in the field once the mission has been defined is no justification for arguing that the elected officials of American people have no right to define the mission.

At this point, the Republicans are dealing with this situation essentially by refusing to act. Senate Foreign Relations committee Chairman Bob Corker has talked about the need for very long hearings – all the while, of course, assuming that battlefield activities will be carried on. This is not simply a great hypocrisy for those who have otherwise criticized the president for acting unilaterally; it is a recognition by the hawks that their support for a reintroduction of American ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the possible involvement of our combat forces inside Syria, is unpopular with the American people. Yes, all of us were horrified by the Islamic State’s butchery, and the president’s action against them deservedly receives wide support. But having seen the inability of the American intervention – at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives – to bring about good governance in Iraq or Afghanistan and the inability of the “moderate” opponents of Assad to put an effective opposition together in Syria, a majority of American people oppose an indefinite continuation of this enormous waste of people, resources and international political capital for our country.

I know that there will be those who will accuse those of us opposed to this reintroduction of significant American combat presence in the Middle East of a streak of isolationism. But many of us who oppose the unsuccessful intervention in some parts of the world believe that America is doing too little elsewhere. There are two examples where we should be doing more, to support democracy in places where it has demonstrated an ability to succeed: Ukraine and Thailand, which I will discuss next week.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

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