One section of President Obama's recent State of the Union address was both deathly serious and perplexing. After a preamble putting the most positive spin possible on the war against ISIS, Obama challenged:
"If this Congress is serious about winning this war, and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, authorize the use of military force against ISIL. Take a vote."
He has a point.
In the early 1970's there was a backlash against Lyndon Johnson's incremental expansion of the Vietnam War, resulting in the War Powers Resolution of 1973 - passed over President Nixon's veto - which prohibited deployment of US armed forces without the approval of Congress, or "a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces." President Clinton probably violated this act by his actions in Kosovo, but in general presidents have taken the limitation seriously. In 1991, President George HW Bush obtained Congressional approval for the First Gulf War.
Three days after 9/11/2001, Congress passed a resolution authorizing 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 further acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons." In 2002, there was a subsequent specific authorization for the Second Iraq War, but for the most part the "war on terror" - conflicts in Afghanistan, incarceration and interrogation, the killing of bin Laden - has been conducted under the aegis of the September 2001 legislation. What does a reasonable interpretation of the resolution cover? Al Queda - sure; the Taliban - sure; ISIS - it is a stretch.
It is useful to take a step back and look at how the threat has evolved.
-- While ISIS has its roots in abu Musab al-Zarkawi's "al Queda in Iraq" which was formed in 2006, it was taken over after his death by abu Bakr al Baghdadi who made a full break with the al Queda leadership in 2014 and has fought against the Syrian affiliate, the al Nusra Front. The split has involved both personal conflicts and a difference over strategy with al Queda focused on the West, and al Baghdadi focused on establishing a caliphate in the "here and now".
-- With the occupation of territory the size of Indiana and Baghdadi's declaration of a caliphate, ISIS has attracted recruits from all over the world. Significant jihadist groups from Libya, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bengladesh, and Indonesia have declared allegiance. Within the past few months there have been high profile terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Paris, Jakarta, Burkina Faso, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as well as San Bernadino. While Obama talks only about the Syria / Iraq base, ISIS' reach is global.
-- Generally with tacit Republican agreement (but some Democratic opposition) Obama has expanded the role of US armed forces in the Middle East. We participated in the air war to overthrow Khadafy in Libya. American aircraft have flown over 10,000 missions in Iraq and Syria. Special Forces advisers in Iraq have played an increasingly active role in the recapture of Ramadi. In October, Obama authorized about 50 Special Operations advisers in Syria. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was delayed, and now the mission is being expanded to include offensive operations as well as training and intelligence support. About 300 troops have been sent to West Africa to help in the fight against Boko Haram.
Despite his halting steps, the president remains in denial about the scope and seriousness of the Islamic terrorist threat. Some of this is because escalation is contrary to his vision for his presidency; some is because the Republicans refuse to give him cover. He won't use the term radical Islamic extremism; he continues to view jihadists as subject to criminal prosecution rather than as prisoners of war; he continues to release prisoners from Guantanamo; he still has no apparent strategy to defeat ISIS. The death toll in Syria has passed 250,000; reports of atrocities in ISIS territory abound; jihadists around the world, such as the adherents of Jemiaah Islamaya in Southeast Asia, have been reinvigorated as Obama's "Jayvees" have the West at bay.
When courage and leadership is called for, all that has come from the Republicans is a call for more bombing and a refusal - except for the recently departed Lindsey Graham - to discuss "boots on the ground". Some of this reflects a reluctance to expand Obama's presidential authority after his abuse with the Environmental Protection Agency, immigration, gun control, and anything else on his agenda. Some reflects his inability to send his Chief of Staff over to Congress for a chat. Some reflects a Republican desire to avoid responsibility for the necessity of more ground troops, leaving Obama exposed to criticism for marginally effective small steps. For sure, the determination of what needs to be done must come from the military experts, but they do not function in a political vacuum. Perhaps it is time to give the president what he asked for - an authorization for the use of military force to eliminate ISIS and all affiliated radical Islamist jihadist organizations - using all military, political, and economic means necessary, consistent with the War Powers Resolution of 1973.
For anybody searching for the right presidential candidate to support, this short test will tell you who you align with on policy matters - compliments of a friend and reader in Washington, D.C.
bill bowen - 1/22/2016