A New Authorization of Use of Military Force
Recently, President Obama presented Congress with a proposed new Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) for military action against ISIS. Actions taken to date in this war have fallen loosely under the broad authorization granted by Congress in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, which has been used to cover the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A new authorization is long overdue, as is a more limited scope of operations than was been permitted under the original document, which has been open-ended enough to permit the longest continuous military engagement in the history of the United States.
Constitutionally, Congress is given the responsibility of Declaring War, the conduct of which is overseen by the President in his role of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Congress has increasingly neglected its duties in this regard since its last official Declaration of War at the US entrance into World War II. The Patriot Act and AUMF were very broadly based documents designed to cover a swift reaction to the developments which culminated in the events of 9/11. They have been subsequently used to justify a whole host of actions, including indefinite detention without charge or trial of suspected terrorists, torture (euphemistically called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques) by those, particularly during the Bush Administration, charged with gathering important intelligence pertaining to past and potential terrorist operations. Also included under this general umbrella have been military actions involving conventional ground troops, special operations forces and unmanned aerial craft (drones) in Afghanistan, Iraq and other nations seen as hotbeds of terrorist activities.
The current AUMF, as well as the Patriot Act, have come to be viewed by many as far too broad in scope, permitting far-flung military activities with goals and objectives which are far too amorphous. Many see provisions as being inherently erosive of civil liberties and person rights at home as well as human rights abroad. In short, they have been used to justify an open-ended (some believe never-ending) war on terror which can never truly be won in the sense of an end to hostilities, so long as acts of organized terror persist in the areas of operation. Costs continue to mount, declining as combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq and operations wound down in Afghanistan with more of the burden being placed on Afghan and Iraqi armed forces personnel. The upsurge in activity since the actions began last summer against ISIS is once again dramatically increasing the costs. Several thousand US personnel have been killed in the conduct of this war, along with many thousands more of Iraqi and Afghan military and civilians – not to mention those casualties of anti-terror forces in Yemen, Pakistan and other nations. The number of American casualties has dropped, but the overall level of violence, not so much.
The proposal submitted by President Obama seems to want to restrict the scope of operations and set a deadline for further Congressional action of three years, while failing to supersede the open-ended 2001 AUMF. The terms limiting use of American ground troops are also vaguely enough written as to permit justification for dramatic escalation under very foreseeable possible future circumstances. It is not a good idea to hobble the ability of the Commander-in-Chief to react as needed to changes in the situation as it evolves, but it is also not a good idea to enable Congress to avoid its responsibilities to debate and approve of, as well as fund, these activities, based upon their constituents’ needs and informed opinion. They are, in fact, providing the weapons and cannon fodder in use during the conflict, either with their own lives, the lives of family members, or at the very least their tax dollars.
In my view, President Obama is to be commended for doing his duty by informing Congress and seeking their debate and vote on the matter. His doing so earlier probably averted precipitous action in Syria. The actor in all of this which does not seem willing to play its appropriate role is Congress. Other than thinking up new ways to prove they are unable to perform even their most basic duties unless faced with a deadline of their own making, serious discussions of the new AUMF have been lost in the shuffle of their refusal to conclude discussions and passage of funding for the Department of Homeland Security. In a pique of anger at the President over his Executive Orders dealing with Immigration Reform when faced with a total lack of any action on the issue by the House, they decided to insert a time bomb with a deadline of February 28 on DHS funding.
Thus, the House stumbles from week to week as John Boehner struggles to maintain a position which he proves time and again incapable of performing, trying to avoid a shutdown of the department most closely involved in the enforcement of immigration law. Not that any other Republican house member could do any better, but eventually, something has to give. Their performance under the pressure of constant crisis management hasn’t been improving with increasingly larger majorities or through the experience gained in so governing over the past four years. They really must learn to do more than just vote on ACA repeal, punt budget matters for short periods of time, passing measures designed to be vetoed by the President and taking lengthy paid vacations.
Congress needs to weigh in on the new AUMF. It needs to give the flexibility necessary to accomplish tangible and achievable goals while at the same time requiring updating within a reasonable timeframe. The time lapse between 2001 and the present seems excessive. There also needs to be sufficient Congressional oversight to insure that our military and intelligence communities do not overreach by committing treaty violations, war crimes and/or crimes against humanity. Such acts make a mockery of any American pretensions of moral superiority over the “barbaric” actions of ISIS or any other identified terrorist organization. Countering beheadings of innocent hostages by murderous bombing and drone strikes, however accurately targeted they may be, is bound to further the cycle of senseless violence we call terrorism in a continuing escalation with still no end in sight. In any language “collateral damage” should be considered profanity.
The United States played a big role in the creation and buildup of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and terrorism more broadly by our initiation and conduct of wars in the region and elsewhere throughout this century. To just abandon millions of people to genocide and more decades of violence would be unconscionable. So would doubling down on fourteen years of inconclusive wars and further expanding the area of operations, as many of the war hawks in Congress propose we do. Furthermore, in approving any actions to be taken in our names as citizens and taxpayers in this country, Congress and the President need to budget in the costs, just as they do for any other government expenditure.
There needs to be an end to financing wars of convenience by means of deficit spending when the Post Office is forced by law to pre-finance projected health care costs for retirees 75 years in advance. Emergency expenditures are one thing. Nobody, even ten years ago, would put the Iraq War in that category, yet no effort was made to raise any additional tax revenue to pay for it. We were just expected to take it out in constant cuts to social safety net programs, investment in critical infrastructure, education and any other non-military program. Instead of taxing those profiting because of these wars, we not only take the lives of the middle class and poor who compose the great majority of our armed forces, but take away tax dollars meant to finance programs to help them and their families in order to pay for death and destruction abroad. When the soldiers return and require medical or other assistance, we haven’t planned for that, either, so to pay for it, we again rob other peaceful programs.
The military contractors and other war profiteers who gain so much wealth at our expense in these military adventures need to start bearing their share of the burden in paying for them. The government needs to start meeting the needs of all of us, not just the top 1%. Our collective actions also must stand in defense of the high moral standards we set in helping to write some of these war crimes and other treaties designed to protect people from excessive brutality in times of war, rather than just discarding them when it becomes expedient to do so. Rather than creating conditions conducive to the spread of even more inhumane brutality, we must work for peaceful solutions whenever possible and seek with others to end hostilities expeditiously, rather than letting then fester indefinitely as has been done of late. Make the government pay for its destructiveness as it goes, rather than pretending it costs nothing and then taking it out of social programs when a huge deficit is suddenly discovered.
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