WASHINGTON, October 4, 2014 — We are bombing targets of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. We are doing so without any apparent strategy for success.
President Obama has not called upon Congress to authorize this war. For legal justification, he cites two measures, passed more than a decade ago, that authorized U.S. action against al-Qaeda and the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
This seems a strange formulation.
The Islamic State and al-Qaeda are different groups and, in fact, are at odds with one another. The 2002 authorization for war in Iraq, against a government which does not now exist, does not say anything about airstrikes in Syria.
Ironically, in citing the 13-year-old authorization of the use of force against al-Qaeda, we must remember that Obama has said that this legislation should be narrowed and eventually repealed. Though the law authorizes action against “associated forces” of al-Qaeda, it is now being applied to a group that split with al-Qaeda and has been repudiated by it.
Editorially, The Washington Post notes that,
Especially as Mr. Obama is describing the war against the Islamic State as one that may last for years, only passage by Congress of a new authorization will provide an unassailable mandate.
The New York Times also faults Congress:
Congress has utterly failed in its constitutional responsibilities. It has left Washington and gone into campaign fund-raising mode, shamelessly ducking a vote on a critical issue. This has deprived the country of a full and comprehensive debate over the mission to Syria and has shielded administration officials and military commanders from tough questions about every aspect of this operation — from its costs to its very obvious risks — that should be asked and answered publicly.
While the Constitution clearly gives Congress the power to declare war, this provision has not been invoked since we entered World War II. Once thought a necessary legal prerequisite, war declarations still carry weight under international law but “have fallen into disuse since World War II on Capitol Hill,” the Congressional Research Service (CRS) declared in a recent report.
It used to be our chosen way to enter a fight. Congress issued 11 war declarations from the War of 1812 to World War II.
During the Cold War, anxiety over national security grew and presidents sought more flexibility to wage military action spanning from covert operations to all-out warfare, said Matt Dallek, an assistant professor in the graduate school of political management at George Washington University.
“Congress essentially punted on their core responsibilities,” says Dallek, and the lines between declared war and various types of military intervention “all blurred together.”
Congress did pass legislation in 1973, the War Powers Resolution, aimed at limiting the president’s use of military force by requiring time limits and notification to lawmakers. Between then and 2003. the White House sent 111 notifications of military action to Congress.
According to Dallek, “All of our conflicts, except for the attack by al-Qaeda, have been somewhat murkier than the bell that rang with the attack on Pearl Harbor. There is no longer a sense the wars we enter are total wars that require sacrifice from the rest if the country.”
Beyond the question of legal authorization is whether we have a coherent strategy for success. There is much confusion at the present time.
In late September, Obama told “60 Minutes” that he believes “We’ve got a campaign plan that has a strong chance for success in Iraq.”
That plan counts on the Iraqi army to put sectarian differences aside and fight effectively, something it has not done thus far.
In Syria, the president admitted, there is “a more challenging situation.”
Most informed observers, such as the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, say that the “moderate opposition” that the U.S. is backing to combat the Islamic State “is still largely a fantasy.”
Asked whether airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria would inevitably bolster Bashar al-Assad and his brutal regime, Obama replied: “I recognize the contradiction in a contradictory land and a contradictory circumstance.”
In fact, argues Professor Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War:
… whatever else we may say of the approach that the administration has cobbled together — American air power (assuming the availability of suitable targets) plus surrogates on the ground (if motivated to fight) supported by a hastily assembled coalition vaguely promising to assist ‘as appropriate’ — it does not qualify as a comprehensive strategy. It’s a whack-a-mole all over again, the same method that President Obama implemented in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, applied now on a larger scale.
While Bacevich believes that the Islamic State is “a truly vicious and vile enterprise worthy of being attacked,” he believes that it is only a symptom of the challenge we face in the Middle East, not the disease itself:
Woe betide the patient treated by a physician unable to distinguish between symptom and disease. Woe betide the nation whose leaders suffer from the same failing. Unfortunately, that pretty much defines where the U.S. finds itself today. The Islamic State emerged from a set of nontrivial conditions afflicting many nations across the greater Middle East. Figuring prominently among those conditions are political dysfunction, economic underdevelopment and social alienation, along with the pernicious residue of European colonialism, still lingering everywhere from arbitrary borders to thieving local elites. Those so inclined can throw into the mix the ongoing plight of the Palestinian people.
If any lesson is to be learned from the U.S. military’s decades long involvement in the Islamic world, in Bacevich’s view, it is this:
Armed might, often expended at great human, fiscal and moral cost, holds little promise as the means to fix the problem. It hasn’t worked. Trying harder won’t produce a different outcome. Any strategy worthy of the name, will necessarily rest on something other than military power.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in September, Sen Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, what would be required “to destroy them (the Islamic State) within 90 days.” Dempsey replied, “It’s not possible, Senator. We could destroy a lot of equipment; we could drive them underground, if you will. But as I said, they will only be defeated or destroyed once they’re rejected by the population in which they hide.”
That we seem uncertain about what we are doing is clear. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, for example, said that the whole strategy for defeating the Islamic State in Syria largely rests on a local fighting force that right now exists only on paper. “If we don’t have ground capability in moderate opposition, yes, it affects a rather significant dimension of the overall strategy.”
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says that the Islamic State group rose to power because the U.S. pulled out of Iraq too quickly and waited too long to intervene in Syria. He says that the entire national security team urged Obama to give more support to rebels fighting Syria against President Bashar Assad.
Panetta’s predecessor, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, said that the Obama plan to rely on airstrikes without ground troops is doomed to failure.
The reality is, they’re not gonna be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the (Kurdish) peshmerga or the Sunni tribes acting on their own. So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that (the U.S. won’t put boots on the ground), the president in effect traps himself.
By late last year, classified American Intelligence reports painted an increasingly ominous picture of a growing threat from Sunni extremists in Syria, according to senior intelligence and military officials. Just as worrisome, they said, were reports of deteriorating readiness and morale among troops in Iraq.
The White House didn’t seem interested, and we now know that President Obama missed many of his intelligence briefings.
A senior intelligence official says, “Some of us were pushing the reporting, but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it. They were preoccupied with other crises. This just wasn’t a big priority.”
It finally took the beheading of two American journalists to get the White House’s attention.
President Obama has tried to blame the intelligence agencies for underestimating the danger of ISIS, without mentioning any misjudgments of his own, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, says.
This was not an intelligence community failure, but a failure by policy makers to confront the threat. National security experts, both inside and outside the government, repeatedly warned, a year before ISIL’s drive into Mosul, that Iraqi security forces faced severe pressure.
At a February 11 hearing, Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, then head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned that the Islamic State was poised to “take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014.” He said that the Iraqi government’s “refusal to address” long-standing grievances of Iraq’s Sunni population, as well as the Iraqi military’s “continued heavy-handed approach to counterterrorism operations,” were leading some Sunni tribes to be “more permissive of AQI’s presence.”
He warned explicitly that the Islamic State was exploiting a “permissive security environment to increase its operations and presence in many locations and has also expanded into Syria and Lebanon to inflame tensions throughout the region.”
During all of this, the president seems to have been asleep at the wheel.
Now, without proper congressional authorization, and with no apparent realistic strategy for success, he has taken us to war in Syria and Iraq. And Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, don’t seem to care and will not return to Washington until November.
This is not the manner in which the Constitution prescribed our nation going to war, In today’s Washington, among members of both parties, the Constitutional mandate for a congressional declaration seems quaint. In the end, all of us will pay the price for the ill thought out enterprise in which we are now engaged, and for which no end appears in sight.