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.


Feb 082013

As the latest apologist for Barack Obama’s policy of targeted killing in secrecy and without oversight, Michael Gerson once again illustrates the price we pay for the political myth that  “we are at war.”

This, of course, is the essence of the matter. If America is in an ongoing war against al-Qaeda and associated groups, then the rules of war apply, Yemen and the Afghanistan/Pakistan border are battlefields, and al-Qaeda operatives are lawful targets. This is the position taken by both the Bush and Obama administrations, consistent with America’s inherent right of self-defense and the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. If this war were a myth or a metaphor, then the pursuit of al-Qaeda would be a criminal matter, requiring extradition, arrests and due process.

Of course Gerson is right.  If we are really at war, then the idea that we would restrain our commander-in-chief from waging that war is self-evidently absurd.  But if this war were a myth or metaphor, then not only would the pursuit of al-Qaeda be a criminal matter, the current policy of secret kill-lists drawn up by Obama administration officials would itself be criminal.

Gerson presumes that we agree with his assumption that this war we are supposedly fighting is not mere myth or metaphor.  But the stakes are too high for mere presumptions.  In wartime, the ordinary constitutional restraints upon the government no longer apply.  This is why Gerson, and all defenders of unchecked executive authority, must at every point be challenged to demonstrate — not merely assert — that this war is not a metaphor.

My guess is that if challenged, Gerson would cite the AUMF, which presumes to authorize the President to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Since September 11, 2001, is now more than ten years in the past, it might be prudent to ask whether the extraordinary powers granted to the President under the AUMF still apply.  If they do still apply, we might ask when we might expect to see them expire.  When will the war against the perpetrators of the 9-11 attacks end?

Unfortunately, apologists for unconstrained governmental killing like Gerson never seem to provide much guidance on these issues.  For them, so long as there is even one cave-dweller somewhere in Pakistan who might harbor thoughts about committing a terrorist act against the United States, we will be obliged to defer to the President’s own determination that drone strikes, wiretapping, indefinite detention, and other practices that in peacetime would clearly be the practices of a dictator, are consistent with the defense of American freedom.