A Vague War Declaration on ISIS

President Obama has tossed Congress a draft resolution on using force against Islamic State militants but the vague language is something of a hot potato that neither the White House nor Congress is comfortable with, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The draft that the Obama administration submitted to Congress to authorize the use of military force against ISIS (also called the Islamic State) seems to be pleasing almost no one, and that was bound to be. Some of the strongest early criticism is coming from doves, including people who support Mr. Obama on most other issues, but hawks are complaining as well.

One can see why this tardy submission of a draft resolution was preceded by months of an Alphonse-and-Gaston routine in which both the administration and the Congress were looking to the other to offer a proposal first. Each seemed to sense it was impossible to come up with something that would not have unavoidable and easily noted flaws. Probably the draft will be modified in the course of the coming Congressional debate, and probably the modifications will still leave many doves and many hawks dissatisfied.

Journalist James Foley shortly before he was executed by an Islamic State operative.

Journalist James Foley shortly before he was executed by an Islamic State operative.

Several questions and potential problems are worthy of attention in the debate. Perhaps the most significant question concerns the fact that this draft does not repeal the authorization that Congress passed in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 attack, and that two administrations subsequently have used as the legal basis for a variety of armed actions in several different countries.

The current administration has been saying that this earlier resolution was all the authorization it needed for the military actions it already has been taking for months against ISIS. If the 2001 resolution, so interpreted, remains in force, then how can whatever limits are specified in a new resolution have any significance and any effect?

The coming debate in Congress, however overdue it is and however flawed will be whatever product comes out of it, is nonetheless welcome. It is part of a proper function of the legislative branch. This is not an instance, as has arisen on some other issues, of members trying to act like 535 secretaries of state and getting in the way of negotiating international agreements.

Nor is it, at least not yet, a case of members trying to act like 535 commanders-in-chief and interfering in the management of military operations. Instead it is a matter of the people’s representatives setting basic policy and priorities when it comes to deciding whether a particular goal overseas merits expending American blood and treasure and putting American lives in harm’s way.

Whatever its outcome in terms of a specific resolution, the debate might help to illuminate why it is so difficult to put into legislative language a precise statement of what is intended. The fundamental reason goes back to the habit of thinking of counterterrorism in military terms, as reflected in the unfortunate phrase “war on terror.”

Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy. Wars end; terrorism doesn’t. Military measures are only one type of tool, and not necessarily the most effective one, in countering terrorism. Regarding that last point, it would be appropriate for members of Congress to debate not only the legal issues involved in an authorization of force but also the practical and empirical issues pertaining to what is most likely to cause a group such as ISIS to wax or to wane.

Declaring war, or authorizing force, against a state involves a well-defined adversary, with the limits of the armed conflict defined by the activities of the target state. The organizational manifestations of international terrorism are much different, consisting of amoeba-like groups that shift shape and identity and that lack clear boundaries in terms of either structure or theaters of operation.

Terrorist groups, including the ones that have most preoccupied the United States in recent years, metamorphose, splinter, and spread. The names assumed by groups are of little use in adding clarity to this chaos, because adoption of a name sometimes is nothing more than an expression of fondness for a certain ideology or of admiration for what another group carrying that name has done, or an attempt to sound scarier, rather than reflecting any organizational cohesion.

This has been true of many who have adopted the al-Qaeda name as well as ones today adopting the ISIS name. This is why it is so hard to word a resolution authorizing force resolution against such groups, as if it could be done as clearly and precisely as declaring war against state X.

It is why there is justified concern about whether any meaningful limit is being applied by the current draft resolution when the stated target is ISIS “or associated persons or forces” and this is further declared to mean “any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” That is a very wide window.

It is good for Congress to try to come up with the least bad version of a resolution aimed at ISIS. But what is needed even more is a different kind of Congressional authorization, perhaps a much-improved version of the 2001 resolution, that recognizes that it might be appropriate in carefully selected times and places to apply the military tool in counterterrorism, without vainly pretending as if this could be done in the same way as declaring war against a particular state. But exactly what such an authorization would look like is not at all clear.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

2 comments for “A Vague War Declaration on ISIS

  1. February 15, 2015 at 13:29

    ISIL has yet to reach Baghdad – so why posit they’re on their way to Baltimore?
    Like everything this administration does, President Obama’s proposed draft for the authorization of military force (AUMF) is a purely political document, starting with its conception.

    The President made this clear enough in his message accompanying the draft AUMF text, which notes

    “US military forces are conducting a systematic campaign of airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria,” and goes on to aver that “existing statutes provide me with the authority I need to take these actions.”

    Shorter Obama: I don’t need you guys, but I’m asking anyway.

    But why bother? It’s all about politics. Yes, I know – shocking, isn’t it? I mean, there’sgambling going on in this casino!

    The President is paving the way for his successor, who he hopes will be one Hillary Rodham Clinton, and whose foreign policy principles are a bit more openly hawkish than his own.

    Just Say ‘No’ to the AUMF! It’s a blank check for endless war — Justin Raimondo


  2. John
    February 13, 2015 at 21:16

    The founders recognized that foreign entanglements are inherently ill defined and endless, and deliberately omitted foreign war from the federal powers enumerated in the Constitution, which states that all powers not so enumerated are reserved by the states or the people: foreign wars are unconstitutional. The only constitutional military powers of the US are repelling invasions and suppressing insurrection. The exceptions are “letters of marque” (power to arrest named persons in other countries for crimes in the US) and “letters of reprisal” (authorization of a privateer to attack a named entity not otherwise accountable, usually a pirate ship). No foreign war power of any kind.

    The reason was that the founders well understood the entanglements and motives of foreign war from their study of history. They knew that provoking foreign war is the principal tactic used by the tyrant over a democracy, to demand domestic power to “protect” it from invented foreign monsters, and to accuse his critics of disloyalty. Having lost our skepticism of warmongers in the world wars, we have now lost democracy itself to a right wing permanently empowered to enrich itself, tyrannize the people with surveillance and militarized policing, kill millions of innocents to steal resources, solicit foreign political bribes, and suppress economies without oligarchies. It is time withdraw from NATO and cut the military to nothing but border patrols, deterrence, humanitarian police forces, and readiness for remobilization as needed. We must eliminate surveillance, secret wars, and secret operations completely. What little we lose in security is repaid many times in humanitarian gains and the preservation of democracy.

Comments are closed.