Like everything this administration does, President Obama’s proposed draft for the authorization of military force (AUMF) is a purely political document, starting with its conception. After all, US forces are already in Iraq – 3,000 of them – "advising" Iraqi and Kurdish troops. Now, suddenly, the White House sends this latest AUMF to Congress, which raises an issue: if the AUMF fails to pass, will US forces pick up and leave? To ask the question is to answer it: of course not.
The President made this clear enough in his message accompanying the draft AUMF text, which notes "US military forces are conducting a systematic campaign of airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria,” and goes on to aver that "existing statutes provide me with the authority I need to take these actions."
Shorter Obama: I don’t need you guys, but I’m asking anyway.
But why bother? It’s all about politics. Yes, I know – shocking, isn’t it? I mean, there’s gambling going on in this casino!
The President is paving the way for his successor, who he hopes will be one Hillary Rodham Clinton, and whose foreign policy principles are a bit more openly hawkish than his own. Before she assumes office, he wants Congress’s signature on a blank check for whatever price she is willing to pay for continued US hegemony in the Middle East – while still paying lip service to the idea of a "limited" war.
This is something the smarter breed of criminals do all the time: prepare an alibi in advance and spread the responsibility far and wide. It is also in line with the first principle of a libertarian theory of foreign affairs, what I call "libertarian realism": the idea that foreign policy is merely domestic politics extended beyond our borders. Whatever overseas policies our fearless leaders in Washington choose to pursue are concerned exclusively with the task of perpetuating and expanding their own power and prestige on the home front. Obama’s AUMF is a classic example of this principle in action.
A close reading of the text underscores its brazenly political character, which is revealed in all its inglorious ambiguity in the very first phrase, defining the purpose of the legislation:
"To authorize the limited use of the United States Armed Forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant."
Since all wars come to an end, there is no such thing as the "unlimited" use of force. Furthermore, even within a more realistic framework, "limited" can mean any number of things, e.g. we won’t use nuclear weapons – hardly a reassuring constraint. So what purpose does this phraseology serve?
Again, the whole point of this AUMF is purely political: it’s designed, from beginning to end, to give the President and his party political cover if – or, rather, when – the whole enterprise backfires, as it surely will. In case the GOP wins the White House, it gives the Democrats the space to say: "Well, we said limited, and you guys went out of bounds!" It is also meant to reassure Democratic members of Congress that they can safely vote for it without incurring the wrath of their constituents, who by this time are highly suspicious of anything that promises to suck us into another quagmire – and who have had quite enough of Iraq, thank you.
As we shall see, however, the resolution is so vague that, as Marjorie Cohn, professor at San Diego’s Thomas Jefferson School of Law, puts it:
"Although the proposed AUMF contains some purported limitations, President Obama is essentially asking Congress to bless endless war against anyone he wants, wherever he wants."
This ambiguity is hardly an accident, as a winking Josh Earnest, White House spokesman, acknowledged to reporters. Asked about the resolution’s vagueness, Earnest admitted it was "intentionally" written so in order to give the President the "flexibility" to deal with the "chaotic" progress of a military conflict as it unfolds.
In Washington, D.C., truth is infinitely elastic, as the text of the AUMF makes abundantly clear. The main body of the resolution starts out with the mandatory threat inflation that has justified every post-9/11 intervention right up to the present day:
"Whereas the terrorist organization that has referred to itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and various other names (in this resolution referred to as ‘ISIL’) poses a grave threat to the people and territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria, regional stability, and the national security interests of the United States and its allies and partners;
"Whereas ISIL holds significant territory in Iraq and Syria and has stated its intention to seize more territory and demonstrated the capability to do so;
"Whereas ISIL leaders have stated that they intend to conduct terrorist attacks internationally, including against the United States, its citizens, and interests …"
As Big Daddy said to Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:
"Didn’t you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?"
ISIL, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, is already in retreat, having been flushed out of Kobani and left its dead unburied. As for Iraq, it was long ago dismembered – indeed, from the moment we invaded – and ISIL is merely feeding on the corpse. And what’s this touching concern with the territorial integrity of Bashar al-Assad’s domain? Having spent millions arming and training Syria’s Islamic rebels – most of whom have now gone over to ISIL – Washington’s crocodile tears over the loss of that country’s "territorial integrity" seems to lack …integrity.
By the time we get to the punch line – the alleged danger of ISIL launching a terrorist attack here in the United States – the odor of mendacity is so overpowering that one feels faint. So what is the evidence for an imminent ISIL assault, to be followed by the imposition of Sharia law from sea to shining sea? Well, there is none – except for the fact that "ISIL leaders have stated" this is their intent.
Can it really be true that the United States is obliged to mobilize its forces and go to war every time some band of lunatics proclaims its goal of world conquest? ISIL has yet to reach Baghdad – so why posit they’re on their way to Baltimore?
ISIL, we are told, has "threatened genocide" and "committed vicious acts of violence" against every ethnic and religious group in the region – but how, one might ask, is this different than, say, Boko Haram, or any number of other crazed cults that infest the earth, from Africa to Eastasia? If we invert the sage advice of the wisest of the Founders, who warned us not to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, then we doom ourselves to perpetual war.
But, then again, that’s the idea.
We are treated to a list of American citizens killed by ISIL, a list that will have to be updated now and then as more journalists and others somehow wander into a region where death is more than an even chance. Which raises the question: are we committed to going to war in order to avenge each and every American who gets into trouble – and loses their life – overseas? A journalist or aid worker who travels to a war zone knowingly puts his or her life at risk: must the US government assume those risks? If so, our military is going to be awfully busy for the next hundred years.
The rest of the whereases are merely a collection of political talking points, each aimed at a particular domestic constituency. Here’s one for the feminists:
"Whereas ISIL has targeted innocent women and girls with horrific acts of violence, including abduction, enslavement, torture, rape, and forced marriage …"
This perfectly describes the marriage rituals of Krygyzstan. By the "logic" of the AUMF, we have a moral obligation to invade that Central Asian country and bring this bit of local color to a full stop. What? You don’t think that’s a good idea? What kind of moral monster are you?
These political talking points are followed by a rather cynical series of statements that basically consist of the Obama administration thumbing its nose at Congress – and the Constitution. While the latter clearly states that only Congress has the power to make war, this administration – and every one since Truman – has ignored the law of the land, and the Obamaites throw this in our faces by stating the facts:
"Whereas the United States has taken military action against ISIL in accordance with its inherent right of individual and collective self-defense …"
It wasn’t necessary to add: "and what are you going to do about it?"
Having disposed of the whereases, let’s get down to the therefores, only one of which has any meaning – although, typically, it is meaningful only insofar as it is meaningless:
"SEC. 2. AUTHORIZATION FOR USE OF UNITED STATES ARMED FORCES.
(a) AUTHORIZATION.—The President is authorized, subject to the limitations in subsection (c), to use the Armed Forces of the United States as the President determines to be necessary and appropriate against ISIL or associated persons or forces as defined in section 5….
" (c) LIMITATIONS.—
The authority granted in subsection (a) does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations."
So what, exactly, are we to make of this? "The only thing we can safely assume," quipped Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California), "is that whatever mission might be approved in the future, it won’t be called enduring freedom or enduring anything." Historians will no doubt dub it Operation Enduring Folly, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The above-mentioned Section 5 really lets the cat out of the bag, free to roam far and wide:
"SEC. 5. ASSOCIATED PERSONS OR FORCES DEFINED.
In this joint resolution, the term ‘associated persons or forces’ means individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners."
ISIL has recently organized an arm of its "caliphate" in Libya, and so this resolution gives the President the power to intervene there as well – which is what enabled the Islamic State to establish its Libyan affiliate in the first place. We can blame Hillary Clinton (and Susan Rice, and Samantha Power) for that, but, really, is the purpose of the US military to go around the world cleaning up the messes left by the Clintons? If so, we’ll be back in Kosovo soon enough.
The President may have a hard time selling this resolution to his own party, although the pressure on Democrats to vote yes will be great given Hillary’s presumed support. The apparent collapse of the anti-interventionist "progressive" wing of the party, which seems to be preparing for permanent hibernation, also argues for a rapid capitulation. And as much as the Lindsey Graham wing of the GOP complains that the resolution is a) unnecessary, and b) doesn’t go nearly far enough, they’ll wind up voting for it anyway – because it opens the door to a much wider war than Obama would have us believe.
That leaves the libertarian wing of the GOP, which has stubbornly resisted any new interventions abroad, at least up until now. Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), who is running for President, is their leader, but has had some trouble actually leading on this issue, what with his aborted call to issue a formal declaration of war (which I’ve critiqued elsewhere) and his endorsement of the bombing campaign. Yet lately he’s taken a somewhat harder line, while still evading the question of how he’ll actually vote on the AUMF.
On the one hand, he could make a highly visible and sustained effort to recreate the "Amash coalition" – the right-left alliance that nearly defunded the National Security Agency’s ability to spy on Americans – and lead an effort to impose real limits on US intervention. In this scenario, failing that, he would vote no. On the other hand, he could simply throw up his hands and vote yes out of fear of being branded an "isolationist" – and lose his distinctive brand as a different kind of Republican.
This is a test for him, and one hopes he’ll pass it – and hold on to his base.
As for the rest of us – and I don’t just mean libertarians – the choice is clear enough. Our answer to the War Party must be loud and unequivocal: "No, no, a thousand times no!"
We’ve been here before – remember? The last time they corralled us into a war in Iraq they handed out a bunch of cock-and-bull stories about "weapons of mass destruction" and Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent links to the 9/11 attacks. This time they aren’t bothering with any of that: it’s just pure horror stories plus the laughable contention that ISIL represents a credible threat to the US homeland.
It’s time to put a stop to this nonsense. Whatever support the American people are demonstrating for playing this same tired game – and those polls expressly show no support for US troops on the ground – will dissipate once we begin to wade into the high weeds.
It’s time for a preemptive strike at the War Party’s congressional fortress. Please call your congressional representatives today and urge them to vote no on the AUMF – because we can win this one. Just as we did last time around, when Obama decided it was time to bomb Syria. One by one, members of Congress who were inclined to authorize that aborted military campaign, backed away when faced with a deluge of outraged calls from constituents.
We can do it again! Please make that call today – because the future of this country, not to mention the peace of the world, depends on it.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.