Endless War is the Wrong Response to ISIS

“Obama’s Blueprint for Fighting Terrorism Collides with Reality in Iraq,” blared the New York Times headline late last week, in a story that set forth the challenges of the United States relying on foreign militaries – in this case, Iraq’s – to fight their own terrorists and insurgencies.

While the challenges of relying on ill-equipped partners are real, that hardly means the United States ought to be taking on all those local insurgents ourselves. Yet that’s the upshot of what former Bush Administration lawyer Jack Goldsmith had to say in his response over at Lawfare on Independence Day.

“The ‘training’ blueprint is not the only blueprint left in tatters by the insurgency in Iraq and Syria,” writes Goldsmith.  “So too is the broader blueprint of declaring the ‘war’ against jihadists over,” noting that the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is not just a problem in Iraq but “potentially in the homeland….”  What if some of the Westerners who’ve gone to Syria and Iraq to join the fight return home?

Well sure, there may be “potential” threats from jihadists around the world, but that doesn’t mean the United States should remain in a constant state of war to combat all potential threats wherever they may be. After all, the state of war we’ve been in for the past dozen years has not proved a terribly effective way of subduing those terrorist threats. On the contrary, it appears to have magnified them.

Contrary to Goldsmith’s assumption, declaring the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda that the United States attacked in Afghanistan after 9/11 to be over does not mean the United States pretends all terrorist threats are over. Yet to equate all terrorist threats as equally threatening to our homeland and thus meriting a state of endless and extremely costly war is to buy into the al Qaeda strategy that Osama bin Laden intended, and to fuel the war he started and hoped to perpetuate. It is exactly the opposite of smart counterterrorism policy.

To be sure, U.S. policy towards Iraq has been less than ideal. But that began when the United States decided to invade Iraq – as the New York Times notes, “to confront the threats . . . largely by itself” – and then proceeded to launch a “global war on terror” that has left us with “a lethal jihadi insurgency” that’s “swept across the same Iraqi battlefields where thousands of Americans had lost their lives,” as the Times puts it. The limits of that strategy are now laid bare.

What the United States needs now, as President Obama has acknowledged, is a counterterrorism strategy that does not leave the United States in a position of going it alone, attempting to fight world conflicts that are not ours to win and where U.S. interference risks spreading the battle West. If we’ve learned anything over the last 13 years of war, it’s that war may sometimes be necessary, but it is not always the answer.

Indeed, leaders of the U.S. military agree. As General Martin Dempsey said in May:

As I look forward and think about the need to rebalance the use of military power, I think we will need less direct action because it is the most costly, disruptive and controversial use of American power. By contrast, we need to do more in terms of building partners. I’m a huge advocate of doubling or even tripling our effort to build credible partners around the globe. And I’m also a huge advocate of enabling others who have the will, but perhaps not the capability to act.

Admiral William McRaven made a similar point in February: “Augmenting the capability of local forces equates to perhaps the most cost-effective way of deterring adversaries worldwide and protecting American citizens abroad.”

Rather than stretching the 2001 Congressional authorization for use of military force intended to fight the Taliban and the core of al Qaeda hiding out there, national security experts agree the United States should be working with its overseas allies to shore up their defenses, with the aid of U.S. intelligence and special forces, when needed. That can and should be done under the president’s Article II authorities.

If, on the other hand, the threat from ISIS or other terrorist groups begins to actually pose an imminent threat to the United States – and there’s no evidence it does so now – at that point it will be incumbent upon the president to explain to the American public and to Congress that the threat truly warrants a military response. That is what the law and our Constitutional system of separation of powers demands, and rightly so: a constant state of war is what terrorists want; it is not the way to promote the lasting peace we’re aiming for.

Finally, while Goldsmith claims the politics of the current geopolitical mess make it impossible for the United States to consider declaring its war over, I think it’s the opposite: Americans are understandably war-weary, and don’t want to see any more U.S. troops killed and U.S. coffers emptied fighting other countries’ wars. If and when the homeland is truly threatened, Americans will rally to protect it, and to protect our core values. But after years of unpopular wars, Americans expect their president to make that case publicly and honestly: their support for U.S. sacrifice for faraway battles can no longer be taken for granted. 

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About the Author(s)

Daphne Eviatar

Director of the Security with Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA She advocates for US compliance with international law in US national security policy. Follow her on Twitter (@deviatar).