Obama’s ISIL AUMF A Convenient (But Necessary) Excuse
Explaining my ambivalence around the latest escalation in our intervention.
My latest for The National Interest, “Obama’s ISIS AUMF: A Convenient (But Necessary) Excuse,” has posted. It explains my ambivalence around the latest escalation in our intervention.
Because the piece was a bit long, the editors edited down my original introduction. I include it here, however, for context:
When President Obama declared last September that he would “degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy” without the use of American ground combat troops, most observers, myself included, were highly skeptical. Writing in this forum, I observed that it was “simply the logical continuation of Obama’s existing ISIL nonstrategy and, indeed, his general counterterrorism strategy of blowing up the bad guys and hoping they get tired of it eventually,” dubbed it “Whack-a-Mole with no end in sight,” and yet pronounced that “it may well be the best course of action available to us.”
Five months later, the president is asking Congress to authorize him to dramatically escalate the fight, including the use of ground combat troops, ostensibly in very limited numbers with a very limited mission for a very limited period of time. It’s still highly unlikely to be enough to “destroy” ISIL even by technical military definitions. Further, it’s very likely to lead to expanded American involvement down the road.
The portion of the piece that inspired the editors’ choice of title:
Returning to the Constitutional requirement that non-emergency military action be authorized by Congress is a good idea. It’s a position Obama articulated passionately during his brief tenure in the Senate and as a presidential candidate. Yet, it’s worth noting that, since assuming the Oval Office, Obama has been as aggressive as any of his predecessors in finding ways around that inconvenience when it suits him. Aside from wildly escalating the drone war around the globe, during the Libya campaign in 2011 Obama ignored even the modest restrictions imposed on him by the War Powers Resolution, simply declaring that the combat sorties American forces were flying weren’t “hostilities.” The only time he’s actually asked Congress for its blessing to go to war was to give him an excuse to avoid taking strong action against Syria’s Assad for crossing the “red line” of chemical weapons use.
Regardless of the apparent hypocrisy, getting Congress involved is not only consistent with the law of the land but it’s also shrewd politically and important strategically. Self-serving or not, Obama is right when he declares, “we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together.” If we’re to get more heavily involved in this fight against ISIL, there ought to be a public debate and bipartisan approval.
Getting to my ambivalence:
In terms of the policy itself, it’s easy to sympathize with the president’s plight. ISIL is wreaking havoc in a vital and already fragile region and murdering innocents in particularly graphic, public fashion. There’s enormous pressure on him to “do something” and yet very little appetite for the sort of military response that could potentially yield quick, decisive results. So, while I was skeptical that our months-long game of Whack-a-Mole would do the trick, it seemed the least bad option given the reality that there are simply too few local fighters willing to do the dirty work for us, and fewer still who are capable of doing it.
Further, politics aside, the existing approach (I won’t call it a “strategy”) against ISIL is consistent with the constructivist incrementalism that has characterized Obama’s foreign policy.
While, “Our successes will happen in fits and starts, and sometimes there’s going to be a breakthrough and sometimes you’ll just modestly make things a little better” makes for a lousy bumper sticker, it’s a perfectly prudent approach in a world of bad options. And, while there are mixed reports from analysts far better positioned to evaluate the facts on the ground than me, there’s reason to believe things are indeed modestly better in Iraq and Syria than they would otherwise be had we not intervened.
There’s quite a bit more of that before getting to the conclusion:
This seems reasonable on its face. If it’s worth the risks to our air crews to conduct operations with no end in sight, it’s probably worth taking calculated risks with small commando squads if there’s a sufficiently valuable mission that requires their skill set.
At the same time, it’s hardly inconceivable that the man who argued that combat sorties over Libya didn’t constitute “hostilities” would come up with a creative interpretation of “enduring offensive ground combat operations” if he deemed it necessary. For that matter, since the AUMF wouldn’t expire until a year into Obama’s successor’s term if it were passed tomorrow, it might be the next Commander-in-Chief making that call.
Twenty years ago, when the bloom was off the rose of post-Cold War interventionism, the phrase “exit strategy” came into vogue. It was a shorthand for questions like, What will the situation on the ground look like when we’ve accomplished our mission? How will we know when we’ve won, or at least can transition from kinetic military operations to a post-conflict phase?
The bottom line is that I remain very leery of this approach against ISIL—and am moderately concerned about the modest escalation the president is asking for here—but am not sure that there’s a substantially better approach out there. I’m reflexively non-interventionist and, were ISIL merely operating as part of the horrible mishmash that is the Syrian civil war, I’d say it isn’t our fight, beheadings or no. Given that they’re a regional menace, however, ignoring them isn’t an option. So, Whack-a-Mole still strikes me as the least bad course. Aside from uneasiness, I’m not sure whether Whack-a-Mole Plus Special Forces is slightly better or slightly worse.