Barack Obama’s War against the Islamic State

President Proposes War against the Islamic State: What Has U.S. Been Doing For Last 6 Months?

Obama's War_cropped

The Islamic State is evil. The killing of American hostage Kayla Mueller highlighted the obvious. But that’s no reason for America to go to war again in the Middle East. Or for Congress to approve years more of conflict.

The president requested formal legal authority to war against ISIS—more than six months after dropping the first bomb on the self-proclaimed caliphate. USA Todayheadlined an article on the administration request: “Obama Ready to Take the Fight to Islamic State.” Just what has Washington been doing for the last half year?

The congressional debate will focus on limits to presidential authority. The administration wants to do most anything without admitting as much to the American people. Some Democrats advocate a more restrictive resolution, while many Republicans endorse untrammeled executive power. All to defend a gaggle of frenemies from a far weaker foe unable to seriously threaten America. Washington has rushed into war in a fit of pique.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State has gone through several incarnations dating back to 1999. The group achieved notoriety during the Iraq war, before fading. ISIL recently revived in Iraq and then became a potent opposition force in Syria.

For a long time the Obama administration ignored the group’s gains, recognizing that ISIL was more about insurgency than terrorism, and was targeting Middle Eastern countries, not the U.S. Moreover, Washington could do little to resolve the underlying causes of the group’s rise: sectarianism in Iraq and civil war in Syria.

The administration reversed course when the group’s advances threatened Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil and Iraq’s Yazidi community. Ironically, Washington had not responded a decade ago to attacks on Iraq’s Christian community or more recently to violence against religious minorities in Syria. Even so, the mission seemed limited, until the beheading of two American hostages transformed administration policy.

[See also, “US Bombing Rescues 50 Civilians from ISIS by Killing Them.”]

Now President Obama claims the Islamic State “poses a threat to the people and stability of Iraq, Syria and the broader Middle East and to U.S. national security.” Yes to the first two and possibly the third, but these are not reasons for America to go to war. Exactly how is U.S. security at risk? The president argued that ISIS creates “a threat beyond the Middle East, including to the United States homeland.” How can a few thousand insurgents, locked in bitter combat with several Middle Eastern nations, threaten the rest of the world, and especially the globe’s superpower? The most serious danger may be Western jihadists cycling back home—but most of them joined afterWashington made the latest sectarian Islamic war all about America.

The administration created yet another pseudo-coalition of roughly 60 nations and the European Union, with U.S. forces responsible for 84 percent of the airstrikes as of early February. While the American-led campaign has had some defensive successes—for instance, halting ISIL’s attacks on Kurdistan’s Erbil and Syria’s Kobani—the radical movement seems no closer to defeat. Despite sizable personnel losses, the Islamic State remains in control of most of the territory it seized before the U.S. offensive. “ISIL is going to lose,” declared the president. But you wouldn’t know it from results on the ground.

In fact, Washington gave the group a recruiting bonanza. Estimated at around 10,000 mid-summer, the Islamic State’s fighting cadre jumped to 20,000 or 30,000 after the U.S. entered the conflict. And now, reported the Associated Press, foreign fighters continue to join “in unprecedented numbers.” Moreover, while the Islamic State once was almost entirely isolated, formerly antagonistic groups such the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, since have endorsed ISIL.

In seeking congressional authority the administration is playing on emotions, highlighting ISIL’s crimes, including targeting “innocent women and girls with horrific acts of violence.” Of course, some of America’s Middle Eastern allies, such as Saudi Arabia, also engage in barbaric practices. And plenty of foreign governments, a number friends of Washington, are little better than ISIL. But never mind.

Moreover, Kayla Mueller’s killing “fueled congressional outrage and renewed calls to defeat” the organization, reported USA Today. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) declared: “Her death will only strengthen our resolve to destroy these depraved barbarians.” Yet her tragic fate actually demonstrates ISIL’s limited reach. The only U.S. citizens harmed by the Islamic State are those who voluntarily traveled to a war zone.

Of course, the president paints ISIL’s threats much more broadly. However, the Islamic State’s expansive ambitions are the group’s chief weakness. It wants to be a government, but while the organization would be a wealthy terrorist group, it is a poorly-funded nation state, and its performance has suffered accordingly.

The longer the “caliphate” has existed in cities like Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, the less popular ISIL has become. In particular, repression has generated opposition, as previously happened with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

During its first incarnation in Iraq ISIL’s brutality cost popular backing and working relationships with other insurgents. Leading jihadi groups and theorists, even some linked to or supportive of al-Qaeda, are denouncing the organization again. Syrians call Islamic State fighters “foreign occupiers.” In Mosul, reported USA Today, ISIL fighters “face increasing opposition from residents chafing under the harsh laws being imposed there.” Even many who once welcomed the Islamic State now are thought to favor its overthrow. The gruesome execution video of the Jordanian pilot created widespread demands for revenge among that nation’s majority Muslim population, most Sunnis like ISIL’s fighters.

The group has succeeded so far only because of others’ failings. In Syria a civil war destroyed the political order. The so-called moderates are weak and tend to surrender, along with their U.S.-supplied weapons, to the Islamic State. In Iraq the sectarian Shia central government spawned a corresponding Sunni counter-reaction. Despite the desperate need for reconciliation, Shia militias continue to murder Sunnis; in fact, the former were blamed for executing an important moderate Sunni leader in Baghdad on Saturday, sparking a Sunni parliamentary boycott and threat to withdraw from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s unity government.

The Islamic State found the going much tougher once it moved beyond select areas of Iraq and Syria. Indeed, the movement has targeted nations with a million or more men under arms. Protecting ISIL from the full attentions of this formidable collection of enemies is, paradoxically, Washington. Because the U.S. took over other nations’ defense duties, Turkey has remained studiously aloof. Morocco and the United Arab Emirates have quit flying missions against Islamic State. The Iraqi government has continued mistreat Sunnis, driving many of them toward ISIL. America’s “allies” are enjoying a very cheap ride even though it is their security at risk.

In fact, some of these countries have scaled back their participation to pressure the U.S. to advance their agenda. For instance, Turkey fields an army of 400,000 men, 2500 tanks, 3600 armored personnel carriers, and 7800 artillery pieces, as well as an air force with 350 combat aircraft and 60 helicopters. Instead of using that military abundance, Ankara insists that Washington act in its stead against Syria’s Bashar Assad—and eliminate the strongest bulwark against the Islamic State.

Perhaps the only good news is that ISIL is bound to weaken. Allied action, aided by oil price declines, has cut the group’s funding, which already was stretched by its nominal responsibilities as a state. Brutal repression, growing economic hardship, and lack of government services have angered those conquered. The bounty of American weaponry captured in Iraq will diminish without maintenance and spare parts. Military stalemate may slow the flow of volunteers.

Unfortunately, the proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force would further entangle America in sectarian war without addressing the reasons for ISIL’s success. Indeed, declared presidential press secretary Josh Earnest, the measure was “intentionally fuzzy” so as to maintain the president’s “flexibility,” since “we believe it’s important that there aren’t overly burdensome constraints” on the executive.

The measure would repeal the 2002 AUMF regarding Iraq, but leave in place the 2001 AUMF, directed against al-Qaeda, under which the administration improbably claimed authority to attack the Islamic State, a different group which had nothing to do with 9/11 and which has not attacked America. Despite his criticism of the 2001 AUMF for “keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing,” the president would leave it in place for a future administration to similarly misuse.

Moreover, the new measure would be a dangerous expansion of executive power. First, the administration requested authority to wage at least three more years of war. In December Secretary of State John Kerry also urged “provisions for extension” of such a limit. If ISIL really is such a dire threat to the U.S., can’t the world’s greatest power win more quickly? America spent three and a half years in World War II and less than two years in World War I. Yet the U.S. is incapable of defeating a motley crew of radicals surrounded by enemies, outmanned 30, 40, or 50 to one, massively out-gunned, and busy making enemies among their own people?

Second, there is no geographic limit. Today the U.S. is operating in Iraq and Syria. The new AUMF would authorize combat anywhere. Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and the Gulf already are on ISIL’s target list. The administration could declare most anywhere else to be a battleground as well. Yet if there was good cause to expand U.S. activities, legislators no doubt would respond favorably to a future presidential request.

Third, the measure does not limit war to the Islamic State. Also included are “any closely related successor entity” and “associated persons or forces,” meaning ISIL’s allies, defined as “fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” That would cover almost any Syrian opposition group, from the al-Nusra Front to so-called moderates, as well as Sunni tribes, former Baathists, and anyone else opposed to the Shia-majority government in Iraq. Washington could attack forces which subsequently broke with the Islamic State, even if they did so because they didn’t want to combat America.

Also included would be national groups claiming “loyalty” to ISIL, which already exist in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and are likely to show up in one form or another elsewhere in the Mideast, Africa, and Asia. Such affiliates only need threaten one of three score coalition partners, most in name only; in Libya militants professing their allegiance to the Islamic State just killed 21 Egyptian Copts, triggering a retaliatory attack by Cairo. The potential daisy chain is long: In Foreign Policy Ryan Goodman pointed out how the administration used AUMF 2001 to justify airstrikes on Syria’s Khorasan Group which was linked to the al-Nusra Front which was linked to al-Qaeda.

Fourth, the resolution bars only “enduring offensive ground operations,” like the lengthy conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, suggested the president. However, the current operation is described as a matter of America’s “inherent right of individual and collective self-defense” even though ISIL did not attack America. Moreover, most “offensive ground operations” can be redefined as a means to defend someone somewhere. Government actions which start out temporary have a tendency to become “enduring.” The administration already has used bait and switch tactics on the American people—citing the plight of the Yazidis while organizing a lengthy regional war.

The resolution would ratify the current U.S. presence in Iraq, 2,630 personnel already there for training and advising the Iraqi military, and protecting the U.S. embassy. Another 4000 soldiers with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team are being deployed to Kuwait, ready for action elsewhere. The president’s transmittal letter exempted a variety of activities from any limit—rescue operations, actions against ISIL leadership, intelligence work, “missions to enable kinetic strikes,” and “other forms of advice and assistance.” Americans in these pursuits easily could be drawn into conflict. Last week Islamic State forces captured much of the town of al-Baghdadi, only a few miles from Ayn al-Asad Air Base where more than 300 Marine Corps trainers are stationed. That facility has been subject to mortar attacks and on Friday Iraqi security forces beat off a small assault. These could be merely the beginning.

Fifth, instead of turning the war over to threatened Arab states, the new AUMF would assure Washington’s “allies” that they need not worry about their own defense for the next three or possibly more years. The resolution even authorizes war against “associated” groups which threaten “coalition partners,” irrespective of the military balance. Instead of intervening temporarily to blunt the Islamic State’s momentum and give time for surrounding states to act, the administration plans to create a herd of long-term military dependents. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) even wishes to authorize war on Syria, which has not threatened America. Indeed, if he and the other neoconservative and hyper-nationalist hawks have their way, there will be no limits to presidential action.

Seeking congressional authority made sense—six months ago. Doing so now looks like an attempt to prolong U.S. participation in yet another unnecessary Middle Eastern war. Again the administration claims the mantle of peacemaker while extending old conflicts and initiating new ones. About the only benefit of a congressional vote would be to mandate transparency and accountability. But there’s little reason to expect the administration to comply and the Congress to force compliance.

The president’s proposal is a bad idea. If Congress truly is concerned about legality, it should enforce the 2001 AUMF, which does not permit new misadventures in the Middle East and elsewhere. Any new measure should sharply limit military operations. Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urged Congress “to avoid any undue restraints on the commander-in-chief’s choices.” But the Constitution gives the basic decision over war and peace to Congress. Today legislators need to end old wars rather than rationalize new ones.

See this and more content by Doug Bandow at his Forbes.com blog.