Cato Hill Briefing: ISIS Campaign Illegal and an All-Around Awful Idea


Wikimedia Commons

As Congress refuses to endanger itself in an election year by voting on military action in Syria and Iraq, the Cato Institute's Gene Healy and Christopher Preble called out the administration today for using legal equivocations to justify a poorly conceived military engagement against ISIS.

In justifying its unilateral campaign, Healy noted that the Obama administration "has embarked on a somewhat desperate search for legal cover under Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed under other Congresses for other wars." Stated differently, "Congress gets to vote: one Congress, one vote, one time" to accommodate all future presidents' war games.

At first, the Obama administration cowered under the thin legal blanket of the 2002 Iraq War AUMF, but it has since shied away from that justification in favor of the congressional authorization from 2001. That earlier AUMF, passed days after 9/11, authorized the then-administration to use "all necessary and appropriate forces against those nations, organizations, or persons [who] planned, authorized, committed or aided" in the World Trade Center attacks—against al-Qaeda, in other words. Healy pointed out—again—that this is a terribly weak justification for attacking ISIS, considering al-Qaeda has "publicly denounced and excommunicated" the group.

Healy went on to warn that "because we have declared war on, effectively, the tactic of terrorism more than the people who employ it," we are facing nothing less than permanent war, with the AUMF "treated as a delegation into perpetuity…for [presidents] to do whatever they want in the name of national security":

In the 21st century, we've arrived at a new normal: war without temporal, geographical, or legal limits. War, in other words, as our default setting. The Pentagon envisions a war that will go on at least 15, 20 years. It's possible that the AUMF will serve as the basis for Chelsea Clinton's kill list in 2023.

He added that, at this point, we "should spend less time coming up with new names for new operations and just speak of war in the singular."

But even if the Obama administration had followed the letter of the law, according to Preble, it would be far from clear that America should eagerly plunge back into the Middle Eastern quagmire. Channeling the Weinberger Doctrine, he argued that the strategic rationale for another war is weak at best.

That ISIS presents a compelling and urgent national security threat is debatable, with little consensus even within the current government. Some people, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), argue that "the threat ISIS poses cannot be overstated." Others, like Department of Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson, have said that there is "no credible information that ISIS is planning to attack the homeland of the United States."

The mission also isn't clearly defined or reasonably attainable: No one seems to agree on what it is exactly we're trying to do, much less how we should go about doing it. Obama promised to "degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIS." But now former Gen. John Allen, special envoy to Iraq, wants to drop "destroy" from the mission statement, arguing the word is "too imprecise."

Obama's public pronouncements notwithstanding, Gen. Martin Dempsey vaguely said he would recommend using ground troops if need be—and those indefatigable warmongers Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) want to go even further than that. For his part, Preble isn't convinced that these "wars of choice" against terrorist organizations require ground troops at all, as he has stated before.

The Obama administration's puerile defense—that it can act because it really wants to act—is clearly specious hogwash. The president is failing to obey the laws he swore to uphold. Military re-engagement in Iraq deserves a thorough and dispassionate debate. In the words of Healy, "if anything should be publicly debated, it should be…war and peace."