TIME nation

Obama Goes to War (With Congress)

The President began bombing ISIS on his own, but only Congress can start a war

Earlier this summer, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine found himself in the Grand Foyer of the White House playing the foreign policy–hypothetical game with President Obama. Over drinks with some Senate Democrats, the President mentioned Kaine’s article that day in the Washington Post demanding a congressional vote to authorize any new military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the armed extremist group overtaking large chunks of Iraq.

The Law Professor in Chief, who campaigned for office promising to rein in executive power, proposed some scenarios. “He’d say, ‘Here’s the situation. Do you think I have executive authority to act?'” Among the possibilities Kaine recalls: What if there is an imminent threat to a U.S. embassy? “We generally agreed on most of them,” says Kaine. But not all.

Two months later, those debates are no longer hypothetical. Since Aug. 8, Obama has unilaterally ordered more than 100 bombing runs on ISIS targets in northern Iraq, citing his authority under Article II of the Constitution to protect U.S. lives and offer humanitarian aid. Hundreds of military advisers have been dispatched to Iraq, along with shipments of lethal equipment to proxy forces in the region. Through it all, the White House has maintained that Obama has no plans to seek permission from Congress, which returns from recess on Sept. 8.

The Constitution gives the President the power to defend the country as Commander in Chief, but it delegates the power to declare war to Congress. Kaine is one of several Senators who believe Obama has stretched his powers about as far as they can go. “I am worried about the consequences of Congress basically saying the President can decide unilaterally which organizations to launch air strikes against,” says Kaine.

The Obama Administration, meanwhile, has been signaling that the conflict with ISIS is likely to expand before it contracts. U.S. officials worry about what they believe are hundreds of ISIS fighters with Western passports who could attack Europe or the U.S. if they return to their homelands. General Martin Dempsey, who chairs the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that defeating ISIS will require action by U.S. or other forces on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. Days later, Pentagon sources leaked news of new U.S. surveillance flights over Syria to better map out ISIS positions, a possible prerequisite to expanded bombing efforts. “Rooting out a cancer like [ISIS] won’t be easy and it won’t be quick,” Obama said on Aug. 26. Though the White House insists no decisions have been made for an expanded campaign against ISIS, no one denies that preparations are under way.

The ironies of the situation are striking. A President who helped build his national profile by opposing the war in Iraq now must decide whether to force a vote on a similar military adventure just weeks before midterm elections. But the commander who deferred to Congress rather than launch air strikes on Syria last year may not be able to attract the votes on Capitol Hill that he has in the past claimed to need. “I believe our democracy is stronger when the President acts with the support of Congress,” Obama said one year ago. “And I believe America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.”

There are plenty of reasons for the White House to avoid a bitter debate over a new war in the Middle East. Obama’s attempts to get approval from Congress for the last round of Syria strikes failed to muster the required votes, and it divided his own party, upsetting many on the left. He has also spent some of his second term celebrating what he described as the coming end to the war on terror, a goal that seems increasingly distant. Congressional leadership on both sides is skittish about a vote. “Neither he nor the Congress wants to have this dance now,” says Jack Goldsmith, who led the Office of Legal Counsel for President George W. Bush. “That’s really what is going on.”

In the meantime, the White House has been searching for a legal justification for a protracted military campaign that doesn’t involve going to Congress. A 2002 congressional authorization to use force in Iraq remains on the books, but the White House announced in July that the document “is no longer used” and should be repealed. That leaves the 2001 congressional authorization to pursue those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, which a White House spokesperson says the Administration is “currently reviewing” to see if it applies to ISIS.

But Obama allies like Kaine, who otherwise supports Obama’s ISIS campaign, say that document clearly doesn’t cover ISIS, which did not exist in 2001. Far from being a partner of al-Qaeda, ISIS has emerged as a rival in the region. And in 2001, Congress rejected a White House request for broader authorization to allow military force against threats unconnected to al-Qaeda.

A third option–perhaps the most likely outcome–is for Obama to declare that his constitutional powers allow him to continue the conflict without Congress. A Vietnam-era law requires the President to seek congressional authorization for hostilities within 60 days of their launch, or begin military drawdowns; that deadline would expire after Oct. 7. But Obama never sought such authorization for the bombing campaign that toppled Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Instead, his lawyers argued that the limited nature of U.S. support for air strikes on Libya did not amount to “hostilities” under the law.

In the end, the greatest risk for Obama in avoiding Congress may be to his legacy. No court is likely to force him to stop military action, and Congress is unlikely to unite around a demand for a vote. But Obama has repeatedly promised the American people a more democratic approach to warfare. As so often happens in the Oval Office, the President must now decide whether to pay a political price to uphold his public vows.

–WITH REPORTING BY JAY NEWTON-SMALL AND ZEKE MILLER/WASHINGTON

TIME Aging

Life Lessons From One of the World’s Oldest Men

Charlie White
Charlie White, photographed in 2008 at age 103. Doug Dalgleish

Charlie White, who died at 109, was able to separate the things he could control from the things that he could not

One sunny Sunday morning seven years ago, shortly after we moved into our new home in suburban Kansas City, I noticed that my neighbor across the street was busy in his driveway. Wearing only a pair of shorts, his barrel chest rippling, he was using a sponge and a garden hose to wash his girlfriend’s purple PT Cruiser. Did I feel a twinge of envy at all that this scene implied—the Saturday night romance; the love-interest perhaps dozing languorously inside as her man basked and flexed? No comment. With a glance at my own battered minivan, with its sticky cup holders and booster seats smelling faintly of baby puke, I went inside.

What made the scene especially memorable was that my neighbor was 102.

When you meet a man who is 102, you don’t expect to know him very long. Yet my friendship with Dr. Charles White—Charlie—wound up lasting seven years. Charlie died on Aug. 17, about an hour after he turned 109. That was long enough for him to leave a powerful mark on me.

Talking to Charlie was like falling into a history book. He was born in 1905, during the first months of the William Howard Taft administration. Buffalo Bill Cody and Chief Geronimo were still alive; John F. Kennedy and Laurence Olivier were not yet born. The Wright Brothers had made their first flight not 20 months earlier. Henry Ford had not yet started to mass-produce cars. Among the names the world did not yet know: Lenin, Mao, Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Louis Armstrong, Shirley Temple, Peter Pan.

As I mentioned, he was quite a physical specimen. In our first conversation, he bemoaned the fact that he had recently been compelled to give up golf, at 101. (It was several years before he surrendered his plans to resume the sport.) Even more amazing, though, was Charlie’s brain. He salted his conversations with details plucked effortlessly from yesterday’s newspaper and events of a century ago.

I asked him once if he could recall the old Newman Theater, where young Walt Disney premiered his first Laugh-O-Gram animations in 1921 before moving to Hollywood. Charlie answered with a vivid tour of every movie house in the city circa 1921—not just the Newman, but the place around the corner where his sister played the organ to accompany silent reels, and another place a few blocks from that, and the vacant lot where films were screened on hot summer nights before air conditioning. Then he painted a word-picture of Electric Park out south of town, at the end of the streetcar line. That was the place where Disney watched in awe as the nightly tableaux of human actors rose from fountains on hydraulic lifts each evening. With its manicured landscaping, nightly fireworks, and miniature train puffing around the perimeter, the amusement park of Charlie’s youth fed the imagination that would eventually create Disneyland.

The first doctor in Kansas City to specialize in anesthesiology, Charlie could discourse at length on the invention of modern medicine. He could tell you what it was like to be a general practitioner making house calls in the Depression, removing tonsils with picture wire. It was a hard life, making ends meet on late payments and barter—no health insurance back then. When science advanced beyond ether and brandy for surgery patients, he leapt at the chance to learn anesthesia at the Mayo Clinic. That was 1944. He later learned that his specialty had side benefits; Charlie confided to me that he rendered his kids unconscious for long drives across Kansas on their way to vacations in Colorado.

Charlie had a lot of laughs over the decades. He loved to tell about the time that he and his boyhood friend—later the controversial journalist Edgar Snow, friend of Mao—set off cross-country on dirt roads in a rattletrap 1919 automobile. When the car and their money gave out in California, the lads picked fruit to buy food and hopped freight trains to get home. He worked his way through medical school blowing the saxophone in a dance band. He heard a promising young Kansas City jazzman named Charlie Parker in a local club.

Another local guy, Harry S. Truman, once sent Charlie to South America to assist in a surgery on the president of Peru. Diplomatic immunity suited Charlie. He smuggled a pet monkey on the return trip, which lived in his home for years.

But his was a real life, which means that it wasn’t all laughs. Charlie knew grief from boyhood. His father, a minister of the Disciples of Christ, was killed in a freak elevator accident when Charlie was only eight. His mother took in boarders to pay the bills; some of them were doctors—that’s how Charlie found his future. Later, his first marriage was a trial of mental illness that ended in his wife’s suicide. As the decades passed, Charlie outlived his friends, his associates, even one of his children.

What this rich life taught him was a kind of inner peace, an equanimity reflecting the robust wisdom known as Stoicism. Charlie was able to separate the things he could control from the things that he could not, and he didn’t fret about matters beyond his power. One of his daughters told us once that she was complaining about an insufferable certain someone we all knew when her father told her to stop. You can’t change people like that, Charlie schooled her. If I let such people irritate me, I would have been dead a long time ago.

He taught me something even more useful in the last months of his life. By then, his superhuman body was finally wearing out. Charlie was nearly blind and mostly deaf, though his mind never faded. More and more of his charming and straightforward conversation has to do with his readiness for death. He wasn’t depressed about the oncoming end. Even less was he angry or fearful. He didn’t pine for days past nor pick scabs of regret and resentment.

Instead, it was as if Charlie had reached the end of a long day at the amusement park. The moments of delight and surprise, along with the moments of pain and fear, along with the moments of exhaustion and exhilaration, along with the moments of wonder and love—all culminated in the hazy afterglow of the closing fireworks and the dimming lights.

It was time to leave.

Charlie White lived the dream of countless men and women in my generation, the insufferable Baby Boomers. Hale and hearty well past 100, forever handsome with his rakish moustache and abundant hair, Charlie was prosperous, comfortable, ageless. And that dream led him to a graceful acceptance that … it ends.

Don’t get me wrong: I am all in favor of long and healthy lives. But there is something unseemly in the modern notion that science should aim to cure us of death. Charlie came closer than anyone else I’ve known to that vision of endless life. Close enough to decide that it’s not what it’s cracked up to be. He saved me a good deal of fretting. Thanks, Charlie.

When I heard that he was gone, I thought of Emily Dickinson, for some reason: “Because I could not stop for Death—He kindly stopped for me.” I smiled to know that Charlie was glad to see him.

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