The focus in Washington today is on the imminent request by the Obama Administration for a Congressional authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIS. This will be the first time since the weeks following September 11 that Congress and the American people will have the opportunity to decide both whether and how they want to apply military force against this threat to U.S. interests.
This is the next opportunity but it is unlikely to be the last one we will face in the near future. Events in Eastern Europe are moving at an increasingly rapid rate towards a wider conflict in the Ukraine and a possible confrontation between NATO and Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is reported to have warned Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that he has only one chance to head off extremely severe sanctions and the decision by Western powers, but particularly the United States, to provide arms to Kiev. Russian sources have responded by warning that the decision to provide weapons to the Ukraine will be treated by the regime in Moscow as an act of war. The prospects of such a conflict makes the subject of an ISIS AUMF look like a small matter.
The situation in Europe today is eerily similar to the one that confronted France and England in 1938. Then, like today, the militarily weak and economically fragile democracies had to choose between confronting the threat to European peace early, before their armies and population were prepared for war, or waiting in the hope that either time would moderate their prospective adversary’s thirst for conquest or they would be in better shape militarily to deter or defeat him.
In the end, France and England got the worst of all possible outcomes. There are military historians who argue that had they chosen to stand fast in 1938 rather than 1939, the Western allies would have been in a much better position to win, if war came. Rather than satisfying Germany’s aggressive aspirations, they created a situation in which when war came, it was on much less advantageous terms. Czechoslovakia was gone, the German military had an additional year to mobilize for war and Moscow had cut a deal with Berlin to divide Poland.
Today, the West faces a similar dilemma. It may already be too late to prevent the situation in Ukraine from evolving into conflict. The only parameter over which the West may have control is timing. It can get tough with Putin now in an attempt to get him to back down while the stakes to both sides, arguably, are relatively modest or it can let the Kremlin dismantle Ukraine and risk having to confront an emboldened and more powerful Russia some months or years down the road when it undertakes its next attempt to reabsorb a former Soviet republic such as Kazakhstan. Or worse, it goes after one of the Baltic nations, directly confronting NATO.
Even as the subject of the ISIS AUMF occupies Congress’s attention, it may be time to consider scoping out what an AUMF for Eastern Europe would look like. In addition, the United States needs to speed up the redeployment of U.S. forces to Europe. Sending one heavy armored brigade combat team back is a good start. Two or three would be even better. It also seems like a bad time to be closing major military facilities in Europe.
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