Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us"

When President Obama first came into office in 2009, many people (including the President) talked about the fact that the United States was involved in two wars: Iraq and Afghanistan. I have always tried to point out that this was a mistake. There was actually a third war underway - the one Bush called "the global war on terror" that President Obama re-focused as the "war on al Qaeda." This is the one that people either didn't want to acknowledge or has been discussed as if it was all about civil liberties (i.e., targeted drone strikes) instead of war.

Because so few people have talked about this war on al Qaeda, the strategy announced by President Obama to degrade and destroy ISIS is too often discussed as if it was a re-engagement of the war in Iraq. The President has been clear that it is not.
I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.
This explains why, within the Obama administration, there has been some confusing rhetoric over whether this is a "counterterrorism campaign" or a "war." Back in May 2013, President Obama suggested that it was time to get ourselves off a "war footing" when it came to dealing with terrorism.  He even suggested that Congress should revisit the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force that provides the president with the authority to wage war on al Qaeda. He said that it was time to end the indefinite war and develop  an ongoing counterterrorism strategy.

I am struck by how closely his remarks last week resemble what he said last year. For example, here's what he said about the nature of the threat back then:
So that’s the current threat -- lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates; threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad; homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism. We have to take these threats seriously, and do all that we can to confront them. But as we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.
And here's what he said last week:
Still, we continue to face a terrorist threat. We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today. And that’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge. 
His references to "before 9/11" are an attempt to get us out of a fear-based mode with regard to an examination of the current threats. Meanwhile, folks like Sen. Lindsay Graham are doing everything they can to stoke irrational fears to keep the indefinite war going.

The Obama administration has always been clear that they have the authority to wage a "war on al Qaeda" (and its affiliates) based on the 2001 AUMF. Cass Sunstein made the argument that this is the authority President Obama has to wage war on ISIS, for those who missed the fact that the President identified them as a "formerly al Qaeda affiliate" in his statement last week.

But here's what bothers me about all of that. Until Congress grapples with developing an ongoing counterterrorism strategy that respects the separation of powers (the way President Obama asked them to do back in May 2013), any president going forward will have the authority to wage this as an indefinite war.

This is exactly why I've been so frustrated with the way the left has mischaracterized the current situation (focusing on questions about civil liberties instead of war) and avoided taking a position on these difficult questions. And now pundits and journalists are all over the map in misunderstanding the core questions involved.

I suspect that President Obama is no more optimistic than I am that Congress will take up these questions in a meaningful way. Meanwhile, it rests on his shoulders to develop a strategy to deal with ISIS. But I am seriously concerned about the baton he'll be passing on to his successors.
So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

President Barack Obama, May 2013

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