Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The Senate’s Draft AUMF: Don’t Fix What the President Shouldn’t Have

Yesterday, I commented on the strikingly broad authority the Obama administration proposed in its draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Syria, and argued that Senate leaders’ attempts to narrow the proposed authorization were misguided: “Congress shouldn’t ‘fix’ what the president shouldn’t have.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s revised AUMF, released this morning, hasn’t changed my mind. 

  • They’ve added some adjectives to the operative clause, authorizing the president “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in a limited and tailored manner” (bespoke airstrikes?) against “legitimate military targets,” and tightened the stated goals somewhat. But again “he determines” whether those conditions have been met. 
  • Worst of all, despite purporting to bar “the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations” (Sec. 3) and limit airstrikes to targets “in Syria,” (Sec. 2(a)), the draft (unwittingly?) undermines those restrictions at the outset. The revised AUMF gives away the game in the last clause of Section 1 with a gratuitous and overbroad concession about the scope of the president’s authority to use force without congressional authorization: “the President has authority under the Constitution to use force in order to defend the national security interests of the United States.” That’s far broader than the WPR’s description of the president’s independent constitutional authority to take action in “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States… or its armed forces”–and broader than the original understanding that the president retained the power to “repel sudden attacks.” The language in the Commitee’s draft AUMF implicitly endorses a power to launch sudden attacks when the president deems them in “the national security interests of the United States.” 

Former Bush OLC head Jack Goldsmith calls it “the broadest such clause I have ever seen”–“the draft AUMF enhances, through congressional recognition, the President’s claims of independent constitutional authority to use force in Syria.” Coupled with other provisions in Section 1 affirming that Syria’s possession and use of unconventional weapons “constitute a grave threat to … the national security interests of the United States,”–that phrase again–it gives President Obama additional cover to go beyond what’s authorized in the resolution–flouting the time limits, introducing ground troops, striking targets outside of Syria, and the like.

Goldsmith sums up: “If the Senate draft becomes law, the President should be very pleased.” Americans, who are rightly sick of Middle Eastern entanglements and Tomahawk humanitarianism, will likely have a very different view  

Time for Congress to Decide on War in Syria

On Saturday, President Barack Obama made the right decision and asked Congress for authority to go to war in Syria. Now Congress should make the right decision and vote no. Conflicts and crises abound around the globe, but few significantly impact U.S. security. So it is with Syria.

The bitter civil war obviously is a human tragedy. However, the conflict is beyond repair by Washington. Ronald Reagan’s greatest mistake was getting involved in the Lebanese civil war. The U.S. invasion of Iraq sparked civil conflict which killed tens or even hundreds of thousands of civilians. Civil wars are particularly resistant to outside solution. 

The fighting is unlikely to end even if the U.S. ousted the Assad regime. Insurgent factions, including increasingly influential jihadists, would fight for dominance in that power vacuum. For many rebels, revenge would become a top priority. 

Even if nation-building in Syria wasn’t such a daunting task, the U.S. government should not risk the lives of its citizens in conflicts where Americans have no substantial stake.  Protecting this nation’s, territory, people, liberty, and prosperity remains the highest duty for Washington. 

Accurately Predicting the Potential Costs of War in Syria

On July 19, 2013, General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a letter to Sen. Carl Levin detailing the costs of various military options in Syria. Dempsey also explained the purpose of the cost-estimating exercise. “The decision over whether to introduce military force is a political one that our Nation entrusts to its civilian leaders,” the general wrote to the Chair of the Senate Armed Serves Committee. “I also understand that you deserve my best military advice on how military force could be used in order to decide whether it should be used.” (emphasis in original)

To train and assist the Syrian rebels would cost U.S. taxpayers $500 million, and the costs only increase from there. Gen. Dempsey estimated a no-fly zone will cost “$500 million initially, averaging as much as a billion dollars per month.” Establishing a buffer zone where opposition forces could organize and train would require a limited no-fly zone, which, when “coupled with U.S. ground forces would push the costs over one billion per month.”

A mission to control chemical weapons in Syria would involve “thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces…Costs could also average well over one billion dollars per month.”

Even if the U.S. limits the mission to missile strikes against Syrian targets, the costs would “be in the billions.”

But the real unknown is the costs that could accumulate if the civil war deepens, including possibly after Assad’s ouster. Dempsey didn’t attempt to estimate the costs to U.S. taxpayers if the U.S. military becomes involved in such circumstances. He did recommend, however, that “we must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our actions,” and he warned that “we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”

Washington Is Pursuing Risky Regime Change in Syria

In the days before President Obama retreated from his arrogant, unconstitutional stance that he could order missile strikes on Syria without congressional passage of even a vague resolution of approval, much less the required declaration of war, administration officials insisted that the goal of such strikes was merely to punish Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for the use of chemical weapons, not carry out regime change. That rationale was, and remains, profoundly illogical—and less than candid.

The reality is that Washington has sought the overthrow of the Assad regime almost from the moment that fighting erupted in 2011.  Assad’s departure has been the stated goal of U.S. policy for the past year, and the Obama administration has provided aid to insurgent forces.  Although the aid began as humanitarian and supposedly nonlethal items, it now includes military assistance and training.  Given that track record and the nature of the overall U.S. policy toward Syria, it is preposterous for the administration to argue that missile strikes would not have a similar goal of regime change.  One cannot segregate elements of policy in that fashion. 

The administration needs to be honest with Congress and the American people and admit that the proposed U.S. attacks on Assad’s forces would be designed to advance the goal of regime change.  Representatives and Senators should also ask hard questions about just how Assad’s overthrow would be in the best interests of the American people.  Yes, Assad presides over a thuggish regime, but the insurgent movement seeking to oust him is hardly an association of secular democrats.  Most worrisome, it includes an increasingly powerful faction of radical Islamists, some of whom are directly connected to al Qaeda.

Legislators also should keep in mind that Syria is a fragile ethno-religious tapestry.  To a large extent, the current insurgency is a Sunni Arab bid to overthrow Assad’s “coalition of religious minorities” government (consisting of Alawites—a Shiite offshoot—Christians, and smaller groups.)   It is no coincidence that two especially prominent external sponsors of the insurgency are Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the two leading Sunni powers in the region, while Shiite Iran is Assad’s principal ally.

The most likely outcome of Assad’s overthrow is a fragmented Syria, similar to what has occurred in Libya, the target of the most recent U.S.-led campaign of missile strikes. The second most likely scenario is a Syria dominated by Sunni Islamist elements. A secular, pro-Western successor regime based on the reconciliation of feuding ethno-religious factions is—by far—the least likely outcome.  Members of Congress need to press Obama administration officials to explain how either of the first two scenarios would benefit America’s security in any conceivable way. 

Above all, Congress should not let the administration continue the fiction that missile strikes would have only a limited objective and result in minimal U.S. involvement in the Syrian maelstrom.

The Syria AUMF: Be Careful What You Vote For

Whatever his motivations, it’s good that President Barack Obama has departed from past practicelet the Tomahawks fly and Congress be damnedand gone to the people’s representatives so they can stand and be counted. 

But, as I note in today’s Washington Examinerthat vote isn’t without danger. The draft authorization for the use of military force the administration circulated Saturday is strikingly broad. And if we know anything from the history of past AUMFs, it’s that presidents will push the authority they’re given as far as language will allow—and possibly further. 

In his Rose Garden press conference Saturday, Obama said “we would not put boots on the ground.” The action he’s contemplating would be “limited in duration and scope.” Just a “shot across the bow”—a light dusting of cruise missiles.  

The draft AUMF says no such thing:

  • It authorizes the president to use U.S. “armed forces,” not just air power. 
  • He can do that “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate,” so long as it’s “in connection” with use of unconventional weapons in Syria—and again, he determines what connection exists.
  • It doesn’t limit him to striking Syrian government forces, and it doesn’t limit him to Syria. It’s loose enough, as former Bush Office of Legal Council head Jack Goldsmith points out, to allow the president to wage war against Iran or Hezbollah in Lebanon, so long as “he determines” there’s some connection to WMD in Syria.
  • And it doesn’t contain a “sunset clause” time-limiting the authority granted—which means that authority will be available for future presidents as well. 

As a reminder, here’s LBJ announcing his decision to go to Congress for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, piously intoning that “we Americans know, though others appear to forget, the risks of spreading conflict. We still seek no wider war.”


On Syria, Attention Shifts to Congress

President Obama’s abrupt decision to seek authorization from Congress before ordering attacks on Syria has elicited speculation about what motivated this apparent change of heart. After all, the president didn’t seek Congress’s approval before ordering attacks against Muammar Qaddafi’s forces in Libya in March 2011. Back then, members of the administration claimederroneously, as Louis Fisher points out here (.pdf)that they had all the authority they needed from UN Security Council resolution 1973It was a very thin reed on which to build a case for war, but administration officials teamed up with hawks on both the left and right to turn aside the objections of dovish Democrats and “Kucinich Republicans,” as the Wall Street Journal’s editors called them.

Obama couldn’t shelter behind the UN this time around, and Congressional opposition arose much faster and stronger than I anticipated as recently as last week. Even some Democrats, most notably Virginia’s Sen. Tim Kaine, voiced concern about the president’s apparent intention to circumvent the people’s elected representatives. The British Parliament’s rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for air strikes was a further blow, both in that it denied the United States a credible ally (only France remains), and highlighted the uncomfortable fact that most democracies have a debate before going to war. 

So now the attention turns to Congress, with many members still on recess, but a number returning early to Capitol Hill for briefings and hearings. Those handicapping the sentiment in Congress claim that the president lacks the votes today to secure a victory, but he has a full week to change minds and twist arms. Some of the 190+ members who signed at least one of two letters, or issued a statement, calling on the president to go to Congress before launching an attack will be satisfied to have been included in the process. Sen. Kaine expressed this sentiment today. Party leaders may not whip the vote, but Obama will be assisted by the pro-intervention chorus, led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and by the signatories to this letter issued last week by the Foreign Policy Initiative. The pro-Obama team will include an unlikely ally: Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, who declared last night on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 that a vote against Obama would be effectively a vote for Assad. There will be more of this in the week ahead.

It will be hard for the opponents of intervention in Syria to prevail given that many Democrats can be expected to side with the president, and a number of Republicans still prefer the interventionists’ talking points, even if they know they are unpopular back home. 

President Must Go to Congress Before Bombing Syria

With friends and allies backing away from war with Syria, President Obama has been reduced to threatening unilateral military action—just enough so the administration won’t be “mocked,” said one unnamed official. But that’s also enough to violate the Constitution’s requirement for a congressional declaration of war.

The nation’s Founders feared just such a moment. John Jay pointed to the dubious motives that caused kings “to engage in wars not sanctified by justice or the voice and interests of his people.” So the Framers gave most military powers to Congress. Under Article 1, sec. 8 (11), “Congress shall have the power … to declare war.”

Future president James Madison explained the “fundamental doctrine of the Constitution that the power to declare war is fully and exclusively vested in the legislature.” The Founders did recognize that the president might have to respond to attack; however, this was a very limited grant of authority. George Mason favored “clogging rather than facilitating war.” James Wilson observed: “It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power of declaring war is in the legislature at large.” Thomas Jefferson approved the “effectual check to the dog of war by transferring the power of letting him loose.”

No surprise, many presidents have pushed against the Constitution’s restrictions, unilaterally employing the military for different operations. However, most such deployments have been limited and temporary and many had colorable legislative authority. 

Even strong presidents acknowledged the limits on their power. George Washington explained,“The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.” Similarly, said Dwight Eisenhower, “I am not going to order any troops into anything that can be interpreted as war, until Congress directs it.”

Barack Obama once agreed with his predecessors. In December 2007 candidate Obama acknowledged, “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”