As I revisited the series of 20 questions I recommended Congress consider in September 2014 regarding US strategy to combat the threat posed by ISIL, I remembered the advice an Iraqi friend gave me in 2004: “America has only two problems in Iraq: first, you can’t stay, and second, you can’t leave.”
My friend’s fatalistic view would be a good place for Congress to start if it has a much needed, well overdue, and renewed round of debate over an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIL. It may well be President Obama is already thinking in these terms, as one of his influences, Reinhold Niehbur, wrote in The Irony of American History that the US is strong enough to be a powerful influence on world events, but not strong enough to control them.
I continue to hope that Congress not only votes on an AUMF but that it uses this vote to do three critical things: 1) have a comprehensive debate on what our goals, purpose, and strategy should be; 2) have that debate honestly, recognizing that the dense tangle of issues that generated the ISIL threat will not be easily or quickly untangled; and 3) make a plan knowing that the short term fix of military force is not the long term fix for violent Islamist terrorism that morphs to survive assaults from armies of many nations from within and outside the region.
America can’t stay in the region’s wars indefinitely — or at least staying will not solve many of the conflicts that metastasize into threats against US citizens and interests. History’s humbling lessons in the region teach that the threats posed by violent Islamist paramilitary and terrorist groups result from a broad array of causes that in totality can be neither quickly solved nor adequately addressed by US military force. These causes include deeply engrained regional dysfunctions; societal struggles that will take decades (if not longer) to settle; incompetent, ruthless, and cynical leadership; and, yes, tragic miscalculations by the US and its allies. This is not to absolve murderous extremists (and their funders) but rather to observe that they are enabled by a complicated mix of factors. US military force cannot solve these causes of violence and in some instances actually unleashes them. As Mitt Romney put it, “we can’t kill our way out of this problem.”
And yet America can’t leave. Military force significantly diminishes the short-term threats terrorist groups present. And US military tactical victories have led to some significant victories for our values. Afghan women and children live with much more freedom and possibility than in 2001. Sadaam Hussein was a brutally murderous dictator who killed hundreds of thousands in domestic repression and regional military aggression, and though his removal predicated violent chaos in Iraq there is no way to assess what would have happened had he remained in power. As to the present challenge of how to stop ISIL, the answer to one of my 20 questions — what would happen if America used less force or no force at all — is clear and grim. ISIL will gain more territory, more power, and will kill and terrorize more people.
And yet, in the end, America still can’t stay. The short-term tactical victories achieved by US force have not translated into long-term containment of the extremist terror threat. Nor has long-term US military presence in the region brought the sort of sustainable institutional stability that would put extremists out of business. Extremist survivors of US force — and for that matter survivors of their own governments’ force — have refined their ideology and methods to regroup into new terror organizations in new places. Homegrown terrorists in the US and Europe kill in the name of violent Islamist ideology regardless of the battlefield defeats of the groups that horrifically inspire them. It will cost America dearly to continue to fight wars in the Middle East at present or increased levels. US military service members are courageous and well prepared, but there are some tasks a military cannot complete. No matter how well prepared and well intentioned the military is, there are certain to be tragic mistakes in which civilians suffer or die as the result of US military action. This human suffering, these deaths, are tragedies beyond remedy on their own terms and deepen the dynamics that lead to violence against US interests.
The place to start in the search for good answers is to ask good questions. Below, I revisit several that I posed 14 months ago, along with some thoughts about where things stand today:
What is the United States doing to ensure that it won’t be saddled with indefinite military and police responsibilities in the region? Nothing that works. In fact, the US is assuming greater responsibility by stepping into the power vacuum created by the unwillingness and incapacity of local nations to fight the extremist threat. Efforts to stand up armies and militias have failed miserably and diplomacy, though laudable, has not had the right takers. A major factor limiting US long-term responsibility and quagmire is itself bad news — the willingness of Russia and Iran to join in. The war now folds in the risk of direct conflict with these adversaries, but also ironically brings with it the possibility that these nations will drive regional agreements that could curtail the violence if they conclude that getting out is wiser than getting in.
Can regional governments now, or in the near future, provide long-term, stable, non-violent order that protects the lives and rights of innocent people who live in the region? Regionally, no — there is widespread instability, violence, and abuse of human rights and human beings. On a country-to-country basis some places are safe, some places are stable, and some places honor rights, but there are no places where all of these conditions for human sanctuary flourish. Our adversaries, enemies, and frenemies fail on all fronts, but even the states we consider allies do things that are not only unworthy of American support but also contribute to ongoing violence and suffocation of progress — for example, Saudi Arabia’s relegation of women to second class citizenship and intolerance of religious minorities, Turkey’s suppression of Kurds, and Egypt’s brutality toward dissidents. Israel, the most aligned with US principles in its domestic polity, has in its conflict with Palestine often crossed the line from legitimate self-defense in its occupation and use of force, though to be sure Israel is within its rights to combat lethal Palestinian attacks. Can regional governments provide stability and protect the lives and rights of those who live there? Overall, the answer is a resounding, tragic, and bloody no.
Will military action increase or decrease the number, animosity, aspirations, and capacities of our state and non-state enemies and adversaries? The number of non-state enemies and adversaries, yes, will be decreased. However, state adversaries in the region and elsewhere may welcome and be emboldened by an America stuck in Middle East wars. The animosity and aspirations of non-state enemies are provoked by US military action, which alone of course isn’t a reason not to use force. You expect those you are fighting to be unhappy about it and try to win, but a problem here is that US military action can serve to allow our enemies to recruit and grow, or to benefit from support from those who do not join by exploiting local hostility to American presence.
A key operational question is whether the capacities of terror organizations have been diminished by US military action. True, core al-Qaeda is a shell of its 9/11 threat. However, other terror groups motivated by a similar ideology, most notably ISIL, have grown in its place and become much more sophisticated and effective about controlling territory, money, resources, and public opinion. Though military force has beaten back ISIL, it remains powerful where it is and an inspiration to terror strikes where it is not. Extremists of various allegiances are also focusing on easier-to-strike soft targets with Mumbai/Paris/San Bernardino-style firearm attacks. It has proven to be much easier to kill extremists and extremist organizations than the ideologies that fuel them.
What is the strategic plan for what appears to be a long-term, complex operation with a dense tangle of military, political, and humanitarian goals? I would anticipate that the administration has done more planning on this than it has revealed, and that a fair amount of it is classified and cannot be divulged. That said, there ought to be a fulsome explanation of disclosable strategic goals as well as a thorough public consideration of those goals by Congress.
What important goals will be more difficult or impossible for us to achieve if we commit to this conflict? There are limits to financial, military, media, and political resources, and war is consumptive of all of them. Conflict has consequences and some make important international relationships and accomplishments harder. Moreover, the US is faced with a number of threats, many of which, though less dramatic than terror attacks, are far and away more likely to threaten Americans. For example, an American is millions of times more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease than a terror attack and thousands of times more likely to be hurt or damaged by disasters or weather crises. To be sure, public eruptions of murderous violence cannot be tolerated regardless of their motivation, but even here terrorists are less of a statistical threat than others. In fact, the average American is exponentially more likely to kill him or herself than to be killed by ISIL. It is appropriate to carefully consider the proportionality of resources we devote to the threats we face.
Why can’t nations more immediately threatened by the forces we are fighting than we are pay more, fight more, and do more to eliminate these forces? It could be argued in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings that the US is as immediately and seriously threatened as others, and certainly this finds proponents in current presidential campaigns. I don’t agree with this and see ISIL as a much greater threat to people and governments in the Middle East. The question of right-sizing US involvement — as compared to regional responsibility — remains central to a sustainable reduction in the threat posed by violent extremism originating from or inspired by Middle East groups.
There is also one new question that should be asked of Congress: Why haven’t you had a debate and a vote on how to fight ISIL?
To be fair, several members of Congress such as Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) have challenged their colleagues with this same question and offered AUMF legislation as a start. So has President Obama. All of the proposals on the table have critics in and out of Congress, but after almost a year and a half of war, it’s well past time for the critics in Congress to join those who have taken action. As writers and readers of this site have observed, it is not healthy for a conflict this enduring and widespread, and with such enormous consequences, to be continued (and expanded) by the solitary decisions of a president relying on outdated and patently inapplicable legislation. War without transparency, multi-branch authorization, and purposeful debate is wrong not just because it is bad constitutional precedent (though that is important). It’s the wrong way for a democracy to run a war. Wisdom calls for what the Founders envisioned — air out the pros and cons in public congressional debate that will engage the people, and have an up or down vote that will represent the decision of all the political branches and hold them accountable to the people for the results.
These are matters of life and death for service members called on to fight, for people vulnerable to terrorism in the US and in the Middle East, for human beings cast from their homes by the violence and who might be killed by ISIL or by the military force used against it. Perhaps Congress hasn’t acted because its members have legitimate disagreement on what the US should do in response to ISIL and what the right lessons were from the series of recent US military interventions. Perhaps the motivation for inaction comes from a more cynical place — not voting leaves the political blame to the President if, as will surely be the case, the war goes badly in big ways or small. Either way there is no excuse. Members of Congress ran for jobs that call for making tough decisions. So make one.
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Closing where I began, I hope Congress will not just pass an AUMF but use the legislation to have a deep and thoughtful debate on the goals and purposes for increased US involvement in the series of conflicts required to fight ISIL. As to the details of an AUMF, it ought to have provisions that reflect that though we may have to stay in the fight now, we will one day have to leave — this means observable definitions of adversaries, limits in time, geography, ground troops, and consolidation of legal authority for force (and the rescission of other AUMFs) to avoid expansive legal interpretations that broaden permissible action. Perhaps most important, there should be a comprehensive list of matters on which congressional reporting oversight should be required on a regularly scheduled basis to allow reconsideration of changed realities in the conflict. Above all, I hope that our discussion of war is humbly informed by our experience, which teaches that our varied military involvements in the region have had short-term benefits and tactical victories, but have not solved the deadly problem of violent Islamist extremism or the widespread epidemic of political violence. As Tony Blair observed, the West has made a range of military interventions in the region, all with catastrophic results. We should pay close attention to what does not work.
In the spirit of that humility, I appreciate that others know information about the conflict that those of us without clearances or deep experience in the region don’t, and that in that knowledge gap there may be solutions I and others have not yet seen. Responsible congressional consideration of an AUMF should deeply and broadly consider all of the possibilities and result in legislation that makes sustainable solutions more likely than lasting tragedies.
The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the positions of any current or former employer.