Is U.S. fighting a war against ISIS? Don’t ask Congress.

Is the U.S. at war with ISIS? Is its military action in the Middle East legal?

The answers to those questions could affect the 2014 elections.

The U.S. Constitution clearly states that Congress has the power to declare war, while the president is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. It does not say that the president can commit those armed forces to war without the approval of Congress.

Today, American warplanes are engaged in attacking the personnel and facilities of ISIS and other terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria. U.S. boots are on the ground, worn by military “advisors.”

Leaders of both parties in Congress have made sure that neither the Republican-controlled House of Representatives nor the Democratic-controlled Senate will vote to authorize or ban American military action in the Middle East.

Whatever members of Congress may think of the deployment of American forces – and many approve of it or want even more involvement – they don’t want to vote on it, at least not until after the elections.

Billions of dollars are being spent pursuing the fight against ISIS. Eventually, Congress will have to come up with the money and deal with the effect of that spending on efforts to cut the deficit. But it won’t touch the question with elections looming.

By keeping the conflict in the Middle East out of the elections, they believe they can avoid the risk associated with introducing such a potentially volatile issue into the campaigns. Neither side knows the way the voters would decide, and the debate could draw attention away from pet issues of the day.

So the president and Congress both dance around the use of the term “war.” Politicians have performed verbal acrobatics to avoid calling “war” the aerial attacks on ISIS and the deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq.

The Constitution does not define “war.” One authoritative dictionary calls it “open and declared armed hostile conflict.” That seems to fit.

In fighting today’s terrorists, President Obama has declared that the American objective is to defeat and eliminate ISIS by the use of American attack aircraft. He seeks to legitimize this action, partly by creating a coalition of nations sharing the same objectives and willing to play a supporting role.

To justify attacking ISIS, Obama has cited a questionable law allowing the use of U.S. forces against Al Qaeda, the group that staged the 9/11 attacks, and its allies. But he has also said that law should be repealed, because it is so vague that it could be misused.

This situation raises two basic questions about the state of the American political system.

First, isn’t this supposed to be a democratic republic in which the will of the people, expressed through their elected representatives, rules?

According to public opinion polls, which seem to have become a substitute for elections, popular opinion is divided on the extent of American military involvement in Iraq and Syria. So Washington leaders simply avoid consulting the voters on what may be the most important question of the day.

No wonder that half the eligible voters fail to show up to vote on Election Day. The politicians may do whatever they want without seeking the will of the voters. Why bother voting, when you are being so obviously manipulated and not respected as the ultimate source of political power?

Has the American system evolved into a form of paternalism under which the president and Congress know what’s best for the rest of us and no longer believe it is necessary to ask?

Second, should elected officials act as our leaders or is it acceptable for them to survive elections by avoiding issues?

If the American people are uncertain about the proper course of action in the Middle East, perhaps because of a lack of good information, our leaders could lay out the facts and options and then advocate what they believe to be the best course of action.

Leadership means taking risks; the voters may not agree with the policy favored by a member of Congress. Candidates should explain the facts and make the case for what’s best for the country. Avoiding the issue entirely is not leadership, just risk avoidance.

Where does your congressional candidate stand?

The ISIS conflict surely looks like war. In case of doubt about a conflict, it should be considered to be war, subject to congressional approval and funding.

Before American lives are committed to the risk of death in combat, members of Congress should accept the risk of defeat in elections.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.