So last night, Barack Obama finally unveiled his strategy for dealing with ISIS (you may remember them; he was joking about them earlier this year). For all the Republican carping about his “I don’t have a strategy yet” gaffe, I didn’t mind it. ISIS is a difficult issue to tackle. Do we go to war? If so, for what purpose? Can we actually destroy ISIS? Is containment possible? These are not easy issues to grapple with.
His strategy is detailed here, although calling it a strategy is a bit generous. It’s mainly a continuation of our existing policies (with one notable change that I’ll get to) He wants to expand the bombing campaign, train the Iraqi and Kurdish armies, attack ISIS in Syria, arm “moderate” Syrian rebels, try get Saudi Arabia and others to help out and keep American troops off the ground. I also suspect there is a part seven: quietly get Iran to help out. But you can’t say that openly without opening yet another sectarian rift.
I’ve been a bit concerned lately that this country might go down yet another bloody rabbit-hole to fight ISIS. And after last night, that concern remains. The President’s tone and words sounded awfully familiar. It could have been any number of the speeches that ultimately resulted in us going to Iraq back in 2003. And this incremental ratcheting up of our involvement leads me to believe that more is planned. He says we won’t be putting any troops in. But what do you call nearly 500 “advisors”? I call it the camel’s nose in the tent.
The major change is that he will order airstrikes into Syria and help Syrian rebels, hoping that we’ll somehow manage to fight Assad and ISIS simultaneously without empowering either of them. And we’ll also train Syria rebels, hoping they won’t join ISIS after their training. Absurdly, however, Obama is claiming that he doesn’t have to get permission of Congress because of … the 2001 AUMF that authorized going into Afghanistan. Seriously:
Obama’s using the law that authorized attacks against al Qaeda to justify his new fight in Syria and Iraq. One small problem: ISIS and al Qaeda are at each others’ throats. Legal experts were shocked to learn Wednesday that the Obama administration wants to rely on that 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against al Qaeda for the new ISIS war.
“On its face this is an implausible argument because the 2001 AUMF requires a nexus to al Qaeda or associated forces of al Qaeda fighting the United States,” said Robert Chesney, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. “Since ISIS broke up with al Qaeda it’s hard to make that argument.”
You may remember that the Bush people floated the idea of going into Iraq without Congressional approval based on the 2001 AUMF. They ultimately changed their minds because it was absurd (and ultimately unnecessary, as Congress punted the war power as soon as they could). It’s even more absurd now. The 2001 AUMF was put in place to get at the people who carried out 9/11. It’s not a blanket approval to attack anyone we can call a terrorist. Obama might as well be citing the 1801 law to attack the Barbary Pirates.
Frankly, if there is any doubt, the President should go to Congress. Congress’s war power it not something to be bypassed or ignored by legal mumbo-jumbo. It is a critical check on Presidential power (on those rare occasions when our spineless Congress uses it).
Needless to say, the war-mongers are coming out of the woodwork to proclaim that they were right all along and that Obama needs to do a lot more. Dick Cheney is one of the leaders in saying that Obama fumbled Iraq after the Bush Administration had “won” it. Weigel:
The timer starts four years after the start of the Iraq war, and two years after Cheney insisted, pre-surge, that Iraqi insurgent groups were in their “last throes”?
Yes, that’s the new rule. We are to analyze the situation of 2014 by crediting the Bush administration not for the Iraq war, but for post-surge Iraq. This has been the argument since 2011, when the Obama administration failed to extend the three-year status of forces agreement that (to the satisfaction of hawks) Bush had handed to him. The theme at the time, as Charles Krauthammer put it, was that Obama was “handed a war that was won,” and he blew it. (There were 54 deaths in the risidual coalition forces in Iraq in 2011, so being assigned there wasn’t exactly like being assigned to peaceful South Korea.
It’s not clear at all that having more American forces there would have done anything other than get some of our boys in the crossfire. What Cheney and Krauthammer and McCain are saying is that we should have had a permanent surge. But it’s not even clear that such a massive presence would have stopped ISIS. Rand Paul has argued that it was the initial invasion that set the stage for ISIS, not our withdrawal. Frankly, I don’t think we need lessons on how to stabilize Iraq from the people who screwed the pooch in the first place.
John McCain is also out there proclaiming vindication to anyone who will listen because he wanted to bomb Syria last year. Of course, McCain wanted us to push Assad out of power and was opposed because people feared the power vacuum would be filled by … groups like ISIS. But I’ll give McCain partial credit. If you spend your political career advocating that we should bomb everyone, eventually you will mention someone we should have bombed. McCain is like a stopped clock that is right once a day and then explodes.
Look, I think we can help keep the thoroughly evil ISIS in check, mostly by empowering the Iraqis who oppose it. But it’s not worth one drop of American blood and I’m not sure it’s worth any drop of treasure. Despite hysterical claims to the contrary, ISIS is not currently a threat to us. They are evil and vicious and if we can do something to stop them we should. But, in the end, the only people who can stop ISIS are the people who live in its shadow.
Obama’s speech, however, indicates he wants to move closer and closer to a war footing.