Last week I was critical of the Senate Democratic leadership for cooperating with a Republican initiative to weaken the financial reform bill, and of President Obama for going along with the deal. Today, I am again somewhat critical of the president and very much so of the Republicans. But Senate Democrats in this instance have performed admirably.

The subject is the role that Congress should play in the decision to use American military force, both as a general constitutional principle and in the specific case of the violence now occurring in the Middle East. Just before Congress adjourned for the year, the Senate Foreign Relations committee voted 10 to 8 to adopt a bill that authorized the president to use military force in that area, with appropriate restrictions on the use of ground troops, and with a three-year time limit. The vote was partisan – 10 Democrats voted yes and eight Republicans voted no. One of the Republicans, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, agreed that a congressional role was appropriate and opposed the resolution because it gave the president power to do more than he thought appropriate. The other Republicans were explicit in their view that it was a mistake for the Senate to put limits on the president’s use of force.

The president’s position was an intermediate one. He accepted the right of Congress to legislate but opposed the most important of the restrictions, and he reiterated his position that the resolution Congress adopted in 2001 in response to the mass murders of Sept. 11, gives him sufficient authority to wage indefinite war in Iraq and Syria. I voted for that resolution to authorize military action against Afghanistan as long as it insisted on sheltering the murderous Osama bin Laden. The argument that this resolution was considered at the time to be limited to that specific purpose is proven by the argument that when President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, Congress took a separate vote. (I am very proud to have voted no on that one.) If the 2001 resolution, known as the Authorization of the Use of the Military Force, had been broad enough to cover war in Iraq today, why was it necessary to vote to invade Iraq so soon afterward?

But at least the president acknowledges that there is some need for a Congressional authorization. The Republican position appears to be a continuation of one of the most constitutionally flawed doctrines of the post-World War II period: Their view is that the president has the right unilaterally to send American forces into combat anywhere, anytime, anyplace, without the need to get the support of Congress.

The first thing to be noted about this is the glaring inconsistency between this acceptance of unbridled executive authority in the most important decisions that our country can make and the Republican objection to the president’s “usurpation” of executive authority. Under what logical, moral, legal or any other theory can it be argued that a president may commit the nation to the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, the loss of thousands of American lives and the incalculable loss that occurs in other countries whenever he wants to, but that his decision to refrain from deporting the parents of a child born in America in the interest of family reunification is an outrageous violation of democratic principles?

The decision to go to war is the most solemn, difficult, dangerous, costly one that a nation can make. Allowing this decision to be done by the president alone is not only bad constitutional theory; it has negative consequences. The decision to use force ought to be made with the greatest possible participation of our society. Letting the president make war unilaterally increases the likelihood that we will overuse our military, and that interventions will become divisive. The point that this contributes to our sending our young people into combat too frequently is underlined by one central fact in this dispute: Those who are most eager to see ground troops engaging in to combat in Afghanistan, Iraq and possibly Syria are the most opposed to any congressional role.

Again the glaring inconsistency in the Republican position is relevant. As determined as they are to restrain the president from taking any action on immigration until Congress has voted to allow him to do so, they are equally determined to avoid voting on the subject of sending the military back into ground combat in the Middle East.

There is a lesson that I learned fairly early in my political career. When a debate is occurring about whether or not a vote is required to authorize a particular action, those opposing the need for a vote do so because they recognize that the course they favor is unpopular. In my experience, members of the House and Senate never object to voting on a measure that they favor and they know to be popular with the public. The current Republican position that Congress should not vote on further military action in the Middle East is a recognition that the public does not agree with the position most congressional Republicans favor.

The 10 Senate Democrats who voted as they did, and the Democratic Senate leadership that has supported them in this, deserve a great deal of credit for breaking with decades of bad precedent in insisting that the decision to use military force requires the joint decision of both of the democratically elected branches of our federal government. Regrettably, the fact that control of the Senate will pass through the Republicans next year means that this effort may well be abandoned, I do regret the fact that Senate Democrats waited so long. In fact, it is a further proof of the unpopularity of more American ground force participation in that area that the leaderships of both parties in both houses were very happy to head off any vote until the election was over.

When the question of bombing Syria came up, Obama courageously said that he would not proceed unilaterally and was heavily criticized for it. He was right then, and he is wrong now, both in the claim that a 13-year-old response to the mass murders of Sept. 11 gives him enough authority to go to war with the Islamic State group, and in the argument that if Congress does pass a resolution, it should simply give him the right to do whatever he decides to do.

The fact that the use of military force is the single most important decision a nation can make is a reason fully to submit it to democratic rules, not to exempt it from them.

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

Twitter: BarneyFrank

– Special to the Telegram