The Blank Check for War

by , September 25, 2014

On Monday, the US, with the help of five other countries, began bombing Syria at last. Officially, they were bombing the Islamic State (ISIS) but it still felt like the long-predicted attack on Syria had come. Whether the target was President Assad, or ISIS, the US was eventually going to find a reason to intervene in that brutalized nation.

Now, the US has been (re-)bombing Iraq since the beginning of August. But that was apparently legal because once you invade Iraq, you have an open-ended ticket to do what you like with that country. The war in Iraq supposedly ended in December of 2011, but since the ISIS bombing campaign began, Obama and his aides have been claiming that he can legally intervene in Iraq based on the initial authorization to do so back in 2002 . The US is still protecting Iraq when they attack ISIS, see.

On matters both domestic and international, President Obama has an unpleasant habit of implying that whenever he asks Congress for something he is being magnanimous. Congress did vote in favor of arming certain ostensibly moderate Syrian rebels, which was alarmingly ill-advised, but at least had the sheen of legality. They have not yet been allowed the chance to vote on the totally-not-boots-on-the-ground , so what does it even matter? conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

The 1973 War Powers Resolution was a joint resolution passed by a war-exhausted Congress that even overrode President Richard Nixon’s attempted veto. A Congress with gumption made sure it passed, but it is a relatively meek piece of legislation, which states that barring a direct attack on the United States, the president needs to inform congress within 48 hours of putting American forces into a foreign conflict, and after two months they need to be permitted to vote on that war. Presidents since Nixon have arguably violated this law, with – naturally – no consequences for that illegality.

As Antiwar’s Jason Ditz noted on September 19, the War Powers Resolution has been put on hold until the November midterm election. Members of the House are not permitted to bring the matter to a vote until then. To be fair – with some heartening exceptions – it’s doubtful whether most representatives want to vote on this. It’s a lot safer to simply shove the matter aside, and let the president handle it.

Neither the War Powers Resolution, nor the Constitutional necessity of Congress authorizing a conflict can make a war just. That needs to be said every once in a while as a reminder. War isn’t made okay simply because someone has made it harder to engage in. Rather, the minuscule likelihood of a war being somehow moral, and without civilian casualties, financial theft, and domestic crackdowns on civil liberties, is why a sensible country makes such conflicts difficult to start.

Certainly, there’s no reason to think we’d be better off without legal safeguards against going to war. But practically, they seem to be doing little good. They are formalities that mean little in a world with 1000 loopholes, or executive orders, or national security emergencies, and with a bizarrely meek Congress who cow before the almighty threat of terrorism. As the calculating queen Cersei in Game of Thrones tells the noble Ned Stark when he attempts to enforce the rule of law, "Is this meant to be your shield? A piece of paper?"

Unfortunately, a piece of paper seems to work well as an offensive weapon. The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists has done a flawless job in legalizing every conflict since it was passed on September 14, 2001. Nothing like a terrorist attack on domestic soil to make Congress and the public lie back and think of England. Not only did the vague, short AUMF make the war in Afghanistan legal, but the Obama administration also used it to claim their drone wars were legal. Any group or individual that has even a vague affiliation with Al-Qaeda, no matter where in the world – well, that meant that the president had the authority to go after those people with lethal force. And if some civilians were caught in the Hellfire missile crossfire, so be it. In fact, a US official recently pointed to the 2001 AUMF as a legal basis for intervention in Iraq this week as well. Both AUMFs seem to be open-ended permission for war in any country that contains any radical Muslim terrorist groups.

If a man who ran for president championing the fact that he was always opposed to the war in Iraq wants to claim the power to intervene there again whenever he sees fit, well, so be it. So what if his administration has previously expressed a desire to repeal the Iraq war AUMF. That is the nature of the job. That is the unchecked executive branch doing its work, and the supposedly obstructionist Congress twiddling their thumbs and averting their eyes. This is an ongoing group effort in letting powerful people do whatever the hell they want. The blame lies with Congress, the media, and the public.

There is occasional talk of abolishing either AUMF. This is a good idea except when some of Congress’ fiercest warmongers suggest it, thereby guaranteeing something equally vile would be offered in its place. (Beware of power cemented, but dressed up as reform.) Repealing them would be ideal. But why would any president want to tie his hands like that? Bombing Iraq is presumably legal under the AUMF from 2001, or perhaps the 2002 Iraq version. Bombing Syria is fresh enough that we need not worry about it for another 60 days. Best let these powers be as wide and broad as possible for our leader. He may as yet generously let the War Powers Act do its work. And what then? If there is a vote, it’s difficult to say which way it will go. It seems unlikely the war – any war – will be halted by a suddenly muscular Congress.

Probably the best possible scenario is some kind of sunsetted war powers, something which should have come into being a century or so ago. Here in the US, the best we can hope for is for the practical shackles on war-making to become a little stronger. Nobody ever seems interested in the moral case against war anyway.

Read more by Lucy Steigerwald