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Globe Editorial

House bill gives the president too much power to make war

June 1, 2011

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THERE’S NOTHING like giving the president sweeping war-making authority that he neither wants nor needs to show just how concerned you are about terrorism. But a vote last Friday by the GOP-led House — to place language in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Bill to give President Obama and his successors virtually unlimited authority to combat terrorism — seems more intended to ignite a debate in Washington than to put fear into terrorists around the world.

The move seeks to express the House GOP’s desire for a global war on terrorism as envisioned by President Bush rather than the more limited fight against Islamic extremism articulated by President Obama. Politics aside, a responsible debate should focus on just how much war-making authority the president needs. No one disputes the president’s ability to order troops into battle to combat any emergency; the House, in its zeal to show toughness, is galloping so far ahead as to give the president advance approval for future wars against regimes that support Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or anyone associated with them.

On Sept. 14, 2001, Congress passed a measure known as the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. It allowed the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against those nations, individuals, and groups that, by the president’s determination, “planned, authorized, committed, or aided’’ the terrorist attacks of three days earlier. It was a broad grant of power, with important — and, in hindsight — carefully crafted language that tethered military action to 9/11 and the specific goal of preventing attacks on the United States.

The new language approved by the House last week removes any reference to 9/11, granting the president the authority to use whatever military force he considers necessary against those “who are part of, or are substantially supporting, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces.’’ The authorization also moves America away from preventing attacks toward a full military engagement with terrorist groups, even those who may not target the United States. It would permit military action if a terrorist’s “associated force’’ targeted America’s “coalition partner.’’ Neither term is defined.

Such broad language is unnecessary. Neither President Bush nor President Obama has felt constrained by the language in the 2001 resolution. If military action needs to be taken unrelated to 9/11, then a president can seek new authorization. That’s what Bush did in the runup to war in Iraq.

How to interpret and amend the 10-year-old authorization-of-force measure should be a matter of serious debate — one that should focus on what the president needs to protect against real enemies — not on an indefinite untethering of presidential authority. The recent House language gives a dangerous new life to the war on terror, rather than putting it to rest. Senate debate on the bill, set for later this month, must excise the language.