To date the debates and discussions over President Obama’s proposed authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) have focused on relatively insignificant issues. How much leeway should there be for the employment of ground forces? What should be the duration of the AUMF? Ought there to be geographic constraints on the pursuit of targeted terrorist groups?
Missing from the discussion is the central reality: that with the passage of a new AUMF this conflict will become President Obama’s war. The chattering class can continue to argue over how we came to this point, even that it was all George W. Bush’s fault, but that will be of declining relevance. Rather than backing away from the challenge, President Obama is getting in deeper. Whatever happens from now on, for good or ill, is on him.
Moreover, this war, like Bush’s in 2003, is one of choice. Bush made the choice to go to war against Iraq over the alleged threat of Saddam Hussein acquiring/using weapons of mass destruction sometime in the future. The threat was not imminent and, as it turned out, wildly inflated.
But the same is true today. If the protracted occupations of Iraq and even Afghanistan can be blamed on the choice made by Bush 43 to invade those countries and then stay, then the current situation is equally the result of the choices that President Obama made over the past six years. There was the decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. There was the choice to get involved in the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Ghadaffi. Third there was the choice to turn Yemen into a showcase for the Obama approach to counterterrorism: all drones, all the time. There was even a choice made to support the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which resulted in, among other things, that country’s loss of control in the Sinai and its descent into a terrorist free-fire zone. All the areas into which Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has expanded — Iraq, Libya, Yemen and the Sinai — are places where choices made by the Obama Administration laid the groundwork for ISIL’s current successes.
It seems hard to argue for a war on ISIL and an open-ended AUMF when there is no agreement among the experts or across Pennsylvania Avenue as to the nature of the threat or its severity. In fact, it is the current administration that has been the most vociferous in warnings that we not overestimate the threat. A few days ago, National Security Advisor, Susan Rice made a similar declaration. “ . . . while the dangers we face may be more numerous and varied, they are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or the Cold War.” So, we are choosing war; it is not being forced upon us.
Whatever wordsmithing Congress chooses to perform on the AUMF, it will remain essentially the administration’s document. As such, it reflects the administration’s own ambivalence regarding engaging in a serious fight with Islamic terrorism. The AUMF is for a limited duration and excludes “protracted offensive ground operations,” whatever that means. But, ISIL has committed such acts of barbarism and brutality and poses such a threat to the region, the U.S. homeland and the world as to warrant an unlimited and enduring war to exterminate it. This, in turn, would require major ground operations to be successful. Yet, the President himself cautions the American people not to overestimate its seriousness. It is hard to argue with this view, assuming you also believe that Al Qaeda has been decimated, Fort Hood was workplace violence, Yemen is an example of our successful counterterrorism strategy and that the victims of the attack on the kosher market in Paris were selected at random. But it is equally hard, therefore, to take the administration’s goal of defeating ISIL seriously. Consequently, no matter how much flexibility the AUMF provides, I don’t see that this will be used to maximum effect.
Requesting an AUMF from Congress is half the battle, at best. The AUMF is not a strategy. So far as I can tell we have never had a strategy for defeating Islamic extremism on either a regional or global scale. At best, we have developed local counterinsurgency strategies. But for an administration that has made a point of arguing that we cannot solve all our security problems by the use of military force to not do a better job of bringing the other instruments of national power to bear on the Islamic extremist challenge is disheartening, to say the least. President Obama could get away with winging it, so to speak, as long as the current situation was viewed as no more than cleaning up after the previous administration. But now that this is Obama’s war, he really should give consideration to developing a comprehensive strategy to win it. Otherwise, it is going to be a very long two years.
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