America's most disturbing summer tradition: Agitating for wars and then pretending they don't exist

Congress is taking a vacation just as we approach the anniversary of our unauthorized war against ISIS

Published August 6, 2015 5:15PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)
(Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)

Happy Anniversary! Congress is about to celebrate a full year of dawdling over America's war against the Islamic State by going on vacation.

Having despaired of passing a bill with "Cyber" in its name that nevertheless would do little to protect America against cyberattacks, the Senate just closed up shop for the summer. They'll be back on September 8 for a debate about whether or not to reject the Iran nuclear deal in favor of starting another war.

So it was that yesterday, just before that month-long break, and subsequent debate on the next war, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) tried to raise the sick contradictions behind the current one, the war against ISIS.

Kaine pointed out that Congress is actually obligated to take vacation, according to a 1970 law. "We not only get a recess, a vacation, as many Americans do, but we're legally required to take one," Kaine explained a rule he only learned in recent days. But there's one exception to that rule. "The mandated recess -- quote -- shall not be applicable if on July 31 of such year, a state of war  exists pursuant to a declaration of war by Congress."

Luckily for Congress, it has a loophole. As an obviously frustrated Kaine emphasized as he ended his speech, "that exception only applies if there has been a declaration of war by Congress. Because we haven't even bothered to debate or authorize this war, in the year since it started, we are still entitled, by statute, to take the month of August off."

America is, as Kaine explained, at war. The campaign against the Islamic State started a year ago Saturday. Over that time, the war has cost $3.2 billion. Seven American service members have died. And the war is expanding. Obama is sending troops to a new country -- Kuwait -- to fight ISIS.

There's also the matter of the al Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front, which keeps kidnapping members of the small group of rebels vetted and trained by DOD that have only recently been inserted into Syria. To protect the few dozen remaining, Obama decided to provide air cover for the trainees -- which will also entail protecting anyone they're fighting with, making it more likely we'll get further embroiled in the Syrian civil war.

Then there's Turkey. After a suicide attack in a Turkish border town last month, attributed to ISIS, killed at least 30 people, Turkey finally agreed to let us use its air base at Incirlik to target the terrorist group. A US drone conducted its first lethal strike from the base on Monday. But Turkey has also used this escalation as cover to resume bombing Kurds in the region. That risks putting us at odds with some of our most reliable allies in the region, Iraqi Kurdish forces.

In short, the already complicated situation in Syria -- which arose, in part, as an unintended consequence of the war in Iraq -- has just gotten far more complicated, with the risk it will spiral off into even more unintended consequences.

And yet Congress and the President don't want to do anything to create a legal framework to guide this complicated situation -- some geographical limits or directions about the methods Congress envisions will be used, for example. "A tacit agreement to avoid debating this war persists in Washington," Kaine described in his speech. President Obama keeps operating the war under old authorizations lying around from the Afghan and Iraq wars. A year of war, Kaine argued, has transformed a guy who got elected on opposition to the Iraq war, has turned him into an Executive War president.

And Congress refuses to fulfill its obligation under Article I of the Constitution to authorize the war. Kaine pointed out the irony that Congress refuses to do so even as it remains intent on -- as the first thing it has scheduled when it returns from its legally mandated recess in September -- preventing peace with Iran. "The contrast between Congressional indifference to war and energetic challenge to diplomacy is most disturbing."

There's just one more sick irony in this situation, one Senator Kaine didn't mention.

Congress may be required to leave the Capitol every August unless they've declared war. But they don't actually take a break from their regular work. After all, two years ago, part of August was spent ginning up a war against Bashar al-Assad, one President Obama declined to start (yet) after Congress returned in September. Last year marked the frenzied start of this war against ISIS. This year, August will be marked by heated debates about whether to oppose the Iran nuclear deal or start yet another war.

In other words, Congress is in this really perverse cycle whereby every August they take a mandated vacation that they spend drumming up another war, which they spend the following year refusing to authorize formally, meaning the next year they can be back at home and on TV drumming up yet another undeclared war during the recess they get because they've never authorized any of these.

It almost seems that Congress believes they have to gin up a new undeclared war every August to make sure they keep getting August off to make more war.

To those few of you lucky enough to enjoy a full month off in August, Happy Vacation!

By Marcy Wheeler

Marcy Wheeler writes at and is the author of "Anatomy of Deceit."

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Barack Obama Congress Foreign Policy Iran Isis War Powers