On Wednesday, President Obama finally noticed the United States had been bombing the Islamic State (ISIS) and figured he should ask Congress to give permission for that which had already begun.
As outlined in a letter, Obama has asked for authorization for a three year fight against ISIS. This will include further airstrikes, and no boots on the ground exactly, but "the flexibility to conduct ground combat operations in other, more limited circumstances" and some potential Special Forces operations. The 3000-plus troops who are already in Iraq can stay as well.
The US has been (re)bombing Iraq since summer, most likely in violation of The 1973 War Powers Resolution. The WPR says that if there’s an attack on the United States, or some such direct threat to the US, the president may respond without official declaration of war. However, after 60 days (plus 30 days tops) he needs to get their permission. The definition of a direct threat to the US has been stretched very thin over the years, particularly during the war on terror. And though any legal language contains multitudes of wiggle room, it does appear that violation of the WPR occurred when Obama attacked Libya in 2011 and when Bill Clinton attacked Kosovo in the ‘90s, among others. No consequences for these violations have occurred.
The War Powers Resolution appeared post-Vietnam, post-COINTELPRO, when even Congress began thinking “hang on, maybe we should tie the hands of the president a bit more." Richard Nixon vetoed it, but to no avail. Though it sounds good on paper — and, I would argue, is downright generous in terms of force allowance — the WPR has been a suggestion at best. Just as Obama believes asking Congress for authorization for his domestic projects is merely a polite gesture, here too, he expects praise simply for bothering to ask for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).
Well, what about the last half year of airstrikes against ISIS? They were conveniently legalized by the previous AUMF which authorized going after the culprits of 9/11, and people who "harbored" them. The new AUMF repeals the 2002 version (the Iraq Resolution) which permitted the US invasion of Iraq. The 2001 AUMF (the 9/11 Resolution) will continue. Under this AUMF, US drone strikes such as the one in Yemen which killed a 13-year-old in January will continue under the color of law.
So, to reiterate, the legal basis for the current conflict in Syria and Iraq will stay in place (though Obama has vague plans to "ultimately repeal" it. Though why would he, when it apparently allows for the killing of even American citizens?). The newest AUMF may or may not pass, and has plenty of potential for mission creep, and legalizes the advisors who are already on the ground in Iraq.
Yet by making the war against ISIS official, Obama gets to look like a good guy. That is how you demonstrate your commitment to a balance of powers, by asking for a war after it has already begun.
In theory, the cap on the time of the engagement with ISIS is a good thing. So is the limiting factor of no boots on the ground. But some people don’t believe that the wording of this new AUMF really prevents the deployment of more than a handful of Special Forces troops at certain times. This skepticism is healthy. It’s never safe to assume that government is tying its own hands. That’s just not in its nature.
At a press conference on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in response to an ABC reporter’s pressing that " there are no geographic limitations" on the AUMF. He said this was so that ISIS wouldn’t be able to find a safe haven, with the knowledge that the US and their allies wouldn’t be able to touch them there. This has a flimsy logic to it, but it conveniently allows for a geographically open-ended conflict. This, after all, is the era in which deadly robots can keep a constant presence in countries with which the US isn’t even at war. Again, what president would outlaw his own ability to do this, when it has already been done?
War begets war. And war being such a serious business, the government wants no limits on its actions. Nothing is ever off the table. We are told this on the cusp of every war or "police action." And unless we suddenly all develop a taste for anti-interventionism, we will be told it again and again by our "fearless" leaders.
Yes, as much as the War Powers Resolution, like the Church Committee, and other checks on executive measures that came around the same time, was a good move, it has never seemed able to do its job. That, if nothing else, is because Congress has simply allowed the Executive branch to take away the power to make war. They were wusses during the run-up to the Iraq war, and they remain so today. They don’t want the pressure of voting for or against a conflict, that may be essential today, and hated and regretted in a decade. So the man in the Oval Office gets the task completely.
Again, Obama is inviting Congress to do their own jobs after he engaged in an illegal war for several months. But though there has been dislike of the AUMF draft, that doesn’t mean anyone in the legislative branch will fight it. And there’s no reason to think that the next president won’t be allowed to keep things going in 2018.
Not to mention, even the less objectionable politicians have fallen for this little war fallacy. As Justin Raimondo wrote in November about Sen. Rand Paul’s idea of a declaration of war against ISIS, its hands-tying won’t work "because wars don’t recognize limits. Once started, a conflict tends to spread, ignoring national borders and increasing in intensity." How many hundreds of years do we need before we remember that lesson?
This is a feeble gesture of voluntary goodwill coming from Obama. The past century of conflicts make war feel so inevitable it’s hard to summon much emotion beyond a jaded eye-roll. Yes, this fight with ISIS is coming soon. Soon means it started six months ago. When it will end is impossible to guess. When it does finish, another essential war will have mysteriously popped up in its place. And so it goes.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.