By Mark Thompson
February 11, 2015

Washington irresolution when it comes to waging war has become so feckless that the White House and Congress now engage in a paper chase that lets lawmakers vote on combat without the political risk that would accompany their declaration of war.

That’s why President Obama’s dispatch of his “AUTHORIZATION FOR THE USE OF UNITED STATES ARMED FORCES” is less than the capital letters might suggest. In fact, the draft makes clear that he is only seeking “the limited use of the United States Armed Forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”

The war against ISIL, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, makes explicit a Presidential bet: “…in this campaign,” his draft resolution reads, “it is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground instead of large-scale deployments of U.S. ground forces.”

His language expressly rules out “the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.” In an accompanying letter to Congress, he says U.S. ground troops would be restricted to rescuing downed allied troops, to “take military action” against ISIS leaders, and for “missions to enable kinetic strikes.” Small numbers, in other words.

“With our allies and partners,” Obama said Wednesday at the White House, “we are going to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.”

But his draft resolution also acknowledges that ISIS leaders “have stated that they intend to conduct terrorist attacks internationally, including against the United States, its citizens, and interests.”

Hard to understand—if Obama means what he says in that passage—why he thinks it wise to subcontract out the bulk of the responsibility for defeating this threat to America to non-Americans.

Then again, he may simply be appropriating such language because he’s caught in the threat-inflation mindset that has tainted much of the debate over the danger posed by ISIS. Fundamentally, it’s little more than a pipsqueak guerilla army outfitted with pickup trucks, AK-47s and a keen sense of the value of well-produced social-media posts. Congress is just as guilty on that charge, pumping the bellows of war against what basically is a barbarian horde.

“I’m concerned that the president is more focused on threading a political needle here rather than how to be successful in beating ISIS,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN.

If ISIS represents a threat to the nation, perhaps a declaration of war is warranted. If not, perhaps sitting on the sidelines makes more sense. After all, this conflict now roiling the Middle East boils down to a fight between the Shiite (Iran) and Sunni (Saudi Arabia) branches of Islam. Any role played by outsiders is likely to do little to change the ultimate outcome in such a religious war.

The founders of the U.S. intended that waging war would be a joint enterprise, with the President serving as commander in chief after Congress had declared war. Sure, there are times when a chief executive can’t wait, but Vietnam and Afghanistan each dragged on for more than a decade, and Iraq nearly as long, without Congress bothering to declare war (don’t worry, Iraq’ll be able to catch up in this latest iteration).

It may seem to be only a matter of rhetoric, but a declaration of war by the United States packs a profoundly different punch than a congressional resolution authorizing the use of force. It means the nation is committed to victory. The United States was committed to something in Afghanistan, and Iraq the first time around, but it surely wasn’t victory. The public senses this, and, as a result, the nation ends up fighting its wars tepidly.

Obama has made clear he believes he doesn’t need Congress to approve this retooled authorization for the use of military force. After all, he has been bombing ISIS for six months under authorizations passed by Congress in 2001 and 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks.

Both the White House and Capitol Hill get something out of the deal. Obama gets to outline his “limited” military goals. Congress gets to play warlord, without declaring war. The only U.S. party all-in on the conflict, as has become customary, are the young men and women who will risk everything to carry out their nation’s half-hearted orders.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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