Note: Click here for an updated list of prior columns and blog essays about terrorism and war.
To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power -- or risk abusing it. And that’s why . . . clear guidelines, oversight and accountability [are] now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday.
In the Afghan war theater, we . . . will continue to take strikes against high value al Qaeda targets, but . . . the progress we’ve made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.
Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces. . . .
America . . . take[s] strikes . . . against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people . . .. [emphasis supplied]-- President Barack Obama, "Remarks by the President at the National Defense University," Fort McNair Washington, D.C., May 23, 2013
"[T]he President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001 . . ..” [emphasis supplied]
-- "Authorization for Use of Military Force," September 14, 2001 ((Pub. L. 107-40, codified at 115 Stat. 224).
On September 12 I embedded a column in a blog essay titled, ""Whatever Is the Question, Is War the Best Answer?" -- with links to 10 prior, related blog essays. (Nicholas Johnson, "Is War the Best Answer?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2014, p. A7). That column pointed out that the intelligence community seems to have concluded there is presently little to no likelihood of what the White House calls ISIL conducting terrorist activity inside the United States, and it posed the questions, "Why is Iraq War III in our nation's best interests, and if so, what is our goal, our objective, and 'How would we know if we'd ever been successful?'"
But 600 words is not enough to pursue all the related issues, let alone keep up with unfolding events in this adventure. So there may well be even more blog essays to come over time. Here is today's.
It is personally disappointing that there is not more citizen debate on this war -- including within Iowa. There are many ways in which it impacts Iowans. Iowans are sent to war; some never return, some suffer physical and psychological damage that can last a lifetime, too many reduce their life span through suicide. Families are disrupted, with stress sometimes leading to divorce. Fighting wars on a credit card instead of a pay-as-you-go war tax means there is the financial opportunity cost of war -- the trillions already spent, and billions that continue to be spent, are funds that are unavailable for our roads and bridges, schools and libraries, clean water and flood control, early childhood education, financial support for ethanol production and wind energy, mental health and drug programs as an alternative to our use of prisons.
There is considerable evidence, and opinion within the intelligence community, that what we are doing in Iraq as I write this is increasing rather than decreasing the number of Iraq's terrorists both in Iraq and Syria and the likelihood that their anger at America will bring them to our shores.
A Rose By Any Other Name; Whom Are We Fighting in Iraq, and How Does That Affect the President's Authority? Does Our Current Military Strategy Make Even Military Sense?
Naming RightsNames make a difference. As general semanticist Wendell Johnson once wrote,
A rose with onion for its nameWhy on earth would we want to go along with the words the new gang in Iraq want to use to describe themselves: "Islamic State," "caliphate," "ISIS," or "ISIL"? Those words are their efforts at a branding designed to increase their worldwide appeal to potential terrorists, and otherwise increase their status. Our relentless use of their words only increases their power, appeal, and potential threat to us.
Might never, never smell the same --
And canny is the nose that knows
An onion that is called a rose.
They are not a "state" by any definition of the word. They are not recognized as such by the international community, they do not have the organization of a state, and they do not provide the services of a state. It's hard to justify calling something a duck that can neither quack, walk, nor swim like a duck.
Nor are they Islamic. Catholics associated with Catholic Charities are affiliated with the Catholic Church. Catholics associated with the Mafia are not. Alexander Stille, "The Pope Excommunicates the Mafia, Finally," The New Yorker, June 24, 2014. Muslims are entitled to the same distinctions.
Nor are they a branch of al-Qaeda, a distinction with serious consequences for the President's authority to go to war in Iraq -- for reasons explained immediately below. They can be thought of most accurately, and most favorably to our cause, as Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria (QSIS).
Affiliation of QSIS with al Qaeda
Congress can certainly authorize the President's war in Iraq if it chooses. But it has not yet done so. The White House may be able to find authorization elsewhere; but I'm not convinced by its arguments so far. In any event, it is extraordinarily difficult to make the case that a war against QSIS is legal under the authority granted the President by the AUMF of 2001 (quoted above). It limits his power to fighting "those nations, organizations, or persons [the President] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."
There are a number of problems with relying on this document. Given its language and date (2001) it certainly does not appear to be focused on today's challenges in Iraq. Beyond that, for starters, those persons who “planned” or “committed” the 2001 attacks are, for the most part either dead or captured. It is even a stretch to use it as justification for continued pursuit of today's terrorists we consider “members of al-Qaeda.” It is a bigger stretch to say it authorizes using drones to attack “affiliates” of al-Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and elsewhere. But there is seemingly no justification whatsoever for using it as authority for conducting war against an al-Qaeda separatist that is actually fighting al-Qaeda.
Congress may or may not want to provide the President an AUMF for what he has announced he is doing in Iraq. But if they do, whatever form that authorization may take, the one Congress approved on September 14, 2001 is not it.
The repudiation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria came after the failure of repeated efforts by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to heal a dispute between ISIS and the officially anointed al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra that has erupted in fighting in parts of rebel-held northern Syria.Liz Sly, "Al-Qaeda disavows any ties with radical Islamist ISIS group in Syria, Iraq," Washington Post, February 3, 2014.
ISIS 'is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group . . . does not have an organizational relationship with it and [al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions,' al-Qaeda’s General Command said in a statement . . .. A U.S. counterterrorism official . . . said Zawahiri had been left with 'little choice but to announce a rupture that, for all intents and purposes, had already taken place.' But despite the weight the al-Qaeda brand still carries among jihadists worldwide, the official said, ISIS 'has never been dependent on AQ core for resources or direction, so the tangible impact of the decision may not be that significant.'”
Mission CreepNor is the President's legal position helped by Monday's [Sept. 15] action: "The new campaign included a strike on Monday southwest of Baghdad . . .. The strikes, the Pentagon said, go beyond the United States’ initial mission announced last month of 'protecting our own people and humanitarian missions.'” Steve Kenny, "U.S. Airstrikes Hit Targets Near Baghdad Held by ISIS," New York Times, September 16, 2014, p. A11.
This is not the only evidence of what is more like "mission run" than "mission creep." Assume for a moment that, contrary to the last blog essay, war is the best answer. ["Whatever Is the Question, Is War the Best Answer?" Sept. 10.]
Does Iraq War III Make Military Sense?"Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Tuesday that he would recommend deploying United States combat forces against Islamic extremists in specific operations if the current strategy of airstrikes was not successful, raising the possibility of the kind of escalation that President Obama has flatly ruled out. . . . [As] General Dempsey made it clear, [when] trying to dislodge militants from urban areas like Mosul, airstrikes are less effective because they can cause civilian casualties." Jeremy W. Peters and Mark Landler, "U.S. General to Seek Combat Troops if Airstrikes Can’t Stop ISIS," New York Times, Online September 16, 2014.
“Truly there is no military solution to ISIL,” he said, adding that it could be defeated only with a more comprehensive approach that includes diplomacy. “That may be a tough pill to swallow. But there is no military solution.” Ibid.
Stephen M. Walt, "Applying the 8 Questions of the Powell Doctrine to Syria," Foreign Policy, September 3, 2013.) [General Colin Powell; photo credit: unknown.]
At the Dempsey hearing, Senator John McCain, not surprisingly, found the military response so far to be "inadequate." Senator Angus King said that airstrikes here and there from time to time struck him as something more resembling a game of "whack-a-mole" than a well-considered military strategy. Peters and Landler, above.
[As will develop over the days to come, and will ultimately be discussed in this blog, there are at least a couple of additional rather significant military obstacles to overcome. (a) Anti-aircraft defenses. Both QSIS and Syria have anti-aircraft capability. There are reports that either QSIS or the Syrian government shot down a plane over Syria just this week. So what? So (1) our bombing efforts cannot be as effective as we thought, (2) more significant, our air war is now, unambiguously, "combat," (3) manned fighter planes are not unmanned drones; there is now a real risk that U.S. pilots can be killed, and (4) if they aren't killed, but are shot down, or otherwise forced to land, General Dempsey has made clear that he will put "boots on the ground" to attempt their rescue. (b) Syria. It is even less clear now than it was a year ago how we can effectively participate in Syria -- with or without combat forces on the ground. Our presumed purpose in entering Syria in any way at this time is to "destroy" QSIS. In addition to the problems always associated with air bombardments in urban wars, and the likelihood of our planes being shot down, we will be fighting (with a goal of destroying) the Syrian government's most effective enemy at this time: QSIS. It is unlikely that we can train enough "moderate" resistance fighters to overwhelm QSIS, and even less likely that all the arms we would supply them would never be taken and used by QSIS forces. And if we were to be "successful" in this effort, which is unlikely, we would have simply aided the Syrian government in oppressing its people further. Thus, our participation in a war in Syria seems even more problematical than our participation in Iraq War III.]
It is, of course, too early to tell how Iraq War III will end -- indeed, whether it ever will. But it is not too early to predict, to sound a warning, and to hope that reason will ultimately prevail.