‘I never meant to start a war’
Christopher Newton | Wednesday, February 18, 2015
America’s foremost foreign affairs expert, perhaps the most incisive and lucid since Thucydides, the lyrical genius that is Miley Cyrus provides us with an analytical framework with which to examine ongoing Middle Eastern conflict. Beyond encouraging reckless weekend behavior, Cyrus’ ballad “Wrecking Ball” may be the most insightful take on American national security policy since George Kennan gave us the Long Telegram. Despite its wide applicability, here we shall utilize it as a starting point for examining President Barack Obama’s recent request from Congress for an Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in the Middle East.
Iraq has once again come full circle and is in danger of coming apart at the seams, with talk of civil war and sectarian partition causing many Americans to shake their heads in disbelief, anger and resignation. The complete dismantling of the Iraqi state during the Iraq war not only midwifed the ever so cleverly titled Islamic State (IS), but subsequently allowed it to reinvade from its Syrian bases and occupy large tracts of Iraq as well.
The United States, Iran, Turkey, Israel and numerous Arab League members have all joined the fray, each desiring starkly contrasting outcomes. With the center of the Middle East engulfed in turmoil, the regional balance of power and even Sykes-Picot have been strongly destabilized. The realists of every participating nation-state see not human tragedy, but a rare chance for “a splendid little war” that could restructure the politics of the region for generations.
The United States is first among these interested parties. As Cyrus tells us in “Wrecking Ball,” although the United States entered Iraq in 2003 not intending to ignite a regional conflagration (see title), its invasion strategy left much to be desired: “I just closed my eyes and swung.” Inevitably, this led to a lamentable American response following its 2011 withdrawal, with accusations against Iraq that “All you ever did was wre-e-eck me,” followed by repeated admissions that “I came in like a wrecking ball.” With the American public demanding action, Obama must now convince the Iraqi people and other allies that he means it when he tells them “Don’t you ever say I just walked away, I will always want you,” bringing us to the AUMF request.
This request for a formal, potentially unnecessary authorization indicates that the president intends to escalate the conflict — a welcome signal to regional partners — and that American ground troops will inevitably become casualties — requiring a domestic political consensus. Domestically, Obama’s rhetoric about returning to Iraq for the purposes of “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State sounds more akin to Shakespeare’s King Henry V at Harfleur — “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our English dead” — than the president who had bin Laden shot.
The AUMF, as first drafted by Obama, aims to accomplish a variety of goals in both letter and spirit, demonstrating that the grey-haired one remains an astute lawyer. Most of these goals are political rather than legal, as Obama indicated that the AUMF is merely a courteous formality in an uncharacteristically sassy letter to Congress. Obama has bluntly stated that he has the authority to conduct operations against IS through a combination of the post-9/11 AUMF of 2001 for fighting al-Qaeda, and his role as Commander-in-Chief of the American military. While this requires the legal acrobatics typical of the War on Terror, it is suffice to say that Obama will carry on with the campaign against the Islamic State regardless of what Congress says.
Instead, the AUMF is primarily a political tool, its debate a reflection of struggles between not only Democrats and Republicans but also the executive and the legislature. It cannot be overlooked that the AUMF currently has a three-year sunset clause, meaning that it is set to expire during election season of the 2018 midterms. That election will thus in part be a referendum on the next administration’s, and Congress’, progress against the Islamic State.
More immediately, the ongoing effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria presents Congress with a fait accompli, placing the onus on its Republican leadership to join in the national effort. The war is on and the American people want the Islamic State destroyed. Congress cannot be seen as impeding this effort, for to do so would hand Obama two victories — Congress would again be seen as useless compared to the executive and Republicans would come off as obstructionist.
Yet, Obama also did not include a repeal of the controversial 2001 AUMF, a tactical masterstroke. Congress must approve military action, but to do so it must amend the proposed AUMF. Thus the AUMF will not be purely a product of the administration, but of a Republican Congress as well. Whatever the results of the coming conflict, it will have the stamp of both Obama and Boehner come 2018.
The document is also rife with semantic nuance, particularly one crucial phrase. It does not authorize “enduring offensive” action, in turn allowing actions that are long-term yet billed as defensive or neutral — such as any humanitarian or advisory initiatives — or offensive yet short — including any special forces raid — potentially granting Obama and the next president a deceptively wide mandate for action.
As the political battle gathers speed, the physical battle rages on. Regardless of who wins the contest at home, let us all hope that our elected officials remember who the actual enemy is, the Islamic State itself.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.