We still don’t know if Congress will even vote on providing new and specific authorization for a military campaign in Iraq and Syria. Thankfully, responsible members of Congress rightly take the stand that part of their job is weighing in on whether our country should again go to war in the Middle East.
Although the President has begun military operations in Iraq and Syria, the question of whether and how the United States will continue to fight is far from closed. Congress still gets to decide three things: 1) whether to have a new authorization vote, 2) whether to have a meaningful substantive debate before that vote, and 3) what questions to ask if there is a meaningful debate.
My hope is that Congress decides to vote and to have a meaningful debate. These steps would air the pros and cons of war more fully before the United States commits. If it makes more sense to stop or scale back operations, the country can. Alternatively, if full consideration of the facts supports keeping the U.S. in the conflict, a decision by Congress to authorize force will be better informed and better understood by the public, and will also stand on a firmer legal foundation.
A debate about a vote is important, but Congress can do much more than vote on the war. Congress can find out the facts about the war. How? By asking tough but necessary questions.
Here are twenty questions about the conflict with ISIL that Congress could serve the nation by asking:
1. What facts and opinions can the military and intelligence communities provide to Congress and the public on the reasons for using force (honoring protection of legitimately classified information)? What is Plan B? Many believe ISIL cannot be significantly degraded or defeated by airstrikes alone. If the strategy is to pair airstrikes with local forces ( non-ISIL Syrian rebels, Kurdish forces) on the ground, what is the plan if these local forces prove ineffective?
2. What facts and opinions can non-military, non-intelligence experts, such as human rights, humanitarian, and conflict resolution organizations active in the region, provide to Congress and to the public? Has the President considered these perspectives?
3. Who is the United States fighting, why are we fighting them, where are we fighting and for how long?
4. Who are our allies, what exactly will they do, for how long, how well and how reliably?
5. What is the United States doing to ensure that it won’t be saddled with indefinite military and police responsibilities in the region? Can regional governments now, or in the near future, provide long-term, stable, non-violent order that protects the lives and rights of innocent people who live in the region?
6. Will military action increase or decrease the number, animosity, aspirations and capacities of our state and non-state enemies and adversaries?
7. What is the strategic plan for what appears to be a long-term, complex operation with a dense tangle of military, political and humanitarian goals?
8. Can initial public support be sustained if this conflict, like others in the region, becomes a long, frustrating and costly stalemate?
9. What is likely to happen if the U.S. uses less force or no force at all?
10. What damage will be done to life-sustaining humanitarian infrastructure—electricity, dams, water, roads, schools, hospitals—under the various options for the U.S. use of force?
11. What will happen to innocent civilians under the various options—are there estimates on how many will be killed, injured, displaced from their homes, or mistreated? What steps are we taking to minimize civilian suffering and to care for civilians who are harmed in this conflict?
12. Does our action comply with international as well as U.S. law?
13. What detailed plans do we have to insure that persons detained in these operations by our forces or allies are 1) promptly released if there are not grounds for detention and 2) treated in accord with the law if there are grounds for detention?
14. What is the role of military and intelligence contractors, how will they be overseen and held accountable, how much will they be paid, and what is their role in critical decisions?
15. How much will this cost and how will we pay for it?
16. What important goals will be more difficult or impossible for us to achieve if we commit to this conflict?
17. Why can’t nations more immediately threatened by the forces we are fighting than we are pay more, fight more, and do more to eliminate these forces?
18. How many U.S. servicemen and women do we anticipate will be killed or injured in this conflict? Are there scenarios that experts consider likely under which U.S. casualties will increase from these estimates?
19. What steps are we taking to ensure that U.S. service members who are physically or psychologically harmed in this conflict, and their families, are properly cared for?
20. What other hardships will U.S. service members involved in this conflict endure (such as multiple deployments and long separations from family), and what will be done to minimize these hardships?
These questions are surely being considered by decision-makers outside of public view. That is good, but it is not good enough and it is hardly democracy. Tragically, in our recent wars, Congress has asked questions like this too late—in congressional hearings after things have gone terribly and irreparably wrong, and, importantly, after statutory authorization has been provided. This time, let’s ask the questions and get the answers before we make mistakes that can never be fixed. Officials tell us that our military may be fighting ISIL in several countries for years. Congress and American citizens ought to know as much as we possibly can about this war, or series of wars, now. Not later.
These are the author’s personal views and not those of the law school or any organization he has worked for.