Sep 172014

Today the US House of Representatives voted to support President Obama’s plans to assist certain “vetted” groups in Syria who are fighting the Islamic State.

ISIS is in some ways a threat, and I think that our foreign policy ought to oppose the group at every turn. But I fear that this vote will turn out to be a missed opportunity to combat a far larger threat. Congress just missed an opportunity to put the brakes on the country’s post-2001 protean and never-ending faux-existential crisis responses to terrorist groups, and the associated and inevitable domestic rule-of-law violations that are always justified by spurious government appeals to “national security.” These are the only real existential threats in any way associated with ISIS. This vote does nothing to reduce these threats, because it expresses support for vague executive branch actions against a group whose threat to the national security of the US has been overhyped.

I agree with those who oppose aiding anti-ISIS groups for the very pragmatic reasons that it’s unlikely to work, or if it does, that the victorious groups in Syria or Iraq won’t be much better than ISIS itself. I agree with those who are skeptical about our commitment to fighting ISIS, when at the same time we seem unwilling to actively confront Saudi Arabia or Qatar about those nations’ aiding and abetting of ISIS.

But those reasons pale in comparison to what I think will be the consequences of this Congressional declaration of support for an Obama administration that is pursuing active military operations against ISIS. I fear that this vote will be cited by the Administration when it gets caught assassinating an American citizen that may have traveled to Syria to fight with ISIS forces. I don’t doubt that this vote will be cited by the Administration the next time it acts to stop a lawsuit in its tracks on grounds of “national security” because, somehow, our operations against ISIS may or may not have been related, somehow.

This lack of respect for the rule of law in the name of national security is not a context in which the Congress ought to lightly approve of the executive branch’s deepening our involvement in an overseas conflict against a foe that at most poses only a dubious threat to this country’s security (a threat to some of its ‘interests’, maybe, but not a threat to its security).

Instead, Congress could have strengthened the distinction between wartime and peacetime that has been blurred by the pseudo “war” on terror by not voting to support a vague plan to provide “assistance” to armed forces in Syria that have been “vetted” by some unspecified criteria, as Justin Amash describes the amendment that was just passed. Instead, we have another expression of Congress in support of American involvement in a military response to an overhyped threat. Since 9/11, we’ve seen how two successive administrations have used these conflicts as excuses for violating the rule of law in the name of national security. This vote missed a small opportunity to change this behavior.