Obama's Proposed AUMF

by Michael Sean Winters

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President Obama yesterday sent to Congress a proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that would sunset the AUMF obtained by President Bush in 2002 for the war in Iraq, perpetuate the AUMF passed in 2001 for the war against Al-Qaeda, and provide new authorization for the use of force against ISIS. The proposal, and the debate surrounding it, has the potential to reverse a dominant trend in American politics for the past seventy years, accelerate a different, pernicious trend in American politics, and, although it is unlikely, kick of a debate that we have not had in this country but desperately need.

People who are running for President, especially candidates from the left, complain about the excessive concentration of authority in the executive branch of government. As a candidate and a senator, Barack Obama frequently objected to President Bush’s use of signing statements to alter a law passed by Congress. But, once in office, or once someone goes from the legislative to the executive branch, such qualms tend to disappear. People are far more comfortable with wide latitude in the exercise of power when they have that power or when that power is being exercised in ways they approve. Something similar has been going on in the Church the past couple of years as more progressive Catholics find themselves cast in the role of ultramontanists while our conservative friends are learning how to justify dissent.

Since World War II, and especially with the advent of the nuclear age, the constitutional mechanisms for declaring war were seen as inadequate. If another country is launching nuclear bombs at us, there is no time for Congress to pass a declaration of war. The war in Korea was called a “police action” under the auspices of the United Nations, and the Vietnam War started so incrementally, no one noticed we were at war until it was too late to put a halt to it. But, even after the meltdown in the executive branch that was Watergate, Congress did not really reassert its constitutional authority to declare war. In part, one suspects that they did not want the responsibility. But, neither did presidents want it, at least not alone. So, the AUMF was born and, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it was also automatic. The fact that Obama is seeking a new AUMF and Congress is debating it represents a happy shift to greater balance between the two branches in reaching this most fateful of governmental decisions.

Unfortunately, one trend in American politics that the debate will likely accelerate is the increased partisanship of foreign policy. The reasons for the breakdown of the Cold War consensus on foreign policy are many and complex. Indeed, the creating of that consensus was more of a singular achievement than people realized: Through much of American history, there were political divides about foreign affairs, starting with the issue of tariffs in the late eighteenth century, extending to the acquisition of more territory in the nineteenth, and America’s flirtation with colonialism after the Spanish-American War. But, after World War II, President Harry Truman and Senator Arthur Vandenberg, Republican from Michigan, (blessings be upon them both!) worked together to forge a common, bipartisan foreign policy, containment, that served this country exceedingly well. In diplomatic history, a good rule of thumb is that any policy which lasts a decade can be viewed as a successful policy. Containment lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall forty years later, and it largely achieved its twin objectives: preventing a third world war and containing the spread of communism. It also had the useful domestic effect of making isolationism appear as ridiculous as it deserves to appear.

That consensus began to break down in the rice fields of Vietnam. But, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the belief that America must speak with one voice on foreign affairs has only manifested itself in the wake of crises: The Democrats who were reluctant to get involved in Bosnia finally assented only after the depredations of Srebrenica, and virtually all Americans understood that 9/11 demanded a forceful response. But, the devil is in the details and war occasion a lot of details. The intervention in Bosnia turned out remarkably well – for all the worries about the military might of the Serbs, the leading reason for medical evacuation of U.S. troops from the Bosnian theater in the first year was pregnancy complications – but that consensus did not point the nation towards a similar humanitarian intervention in Rwanda. And, while even Barack Obama campaigned on the idea that the war in Afghanistan was “the good war,” and once in office he increased the number of troops, it would be hard for anyone to argue that we achieved our objectives in Afghanistan despite all the lives lost, the money spent, and the time invested.

It now seems that the postwar consensus was the exception, not the rule. Certainly, Whigs and Tories have long held different views about the types of wars the United Kingdom should wage and what should be their goals. DeGaulle had distinctive views about France’s role in the world that were not shared by the socialist governments of the postwar era. Bibi Netanyahu may pay a stiff price, or so we can hope, for his meddling in the policy divides in Washington, although all Israeli political parties share more than they differ on foreign issues. Still, we Americans must reckon with the consequences of politicized foreign policy.

Which leads to the trend that most needs reversing, and which the debate over this AUMF may require. Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), is quoted in this morning’s Washington Post saying, “The president must articulate and implement a comprehensive strategy that gives our military experts and commanders the agility and authority they need to successfully confront this increasingly dangerous and complex threat.” This kind of unsophisticated understanding of military decision-making is unlikely to be found in the military itself. They have read von Clausewitz – war is the continuation of diplomacy by violent means – and know that military decisions are political decisions. There is a desire in the American psyche for technological solutions that transcend the need for philosophy, hence our fascination with drones, but there are no such solutions. Military leaders understand that every battlefield decision has potential political consequences. It is our political leadership that tends to ignore this by invoking a false idol of an unfettered military leadership, capable of achieving a military victory that is also a political victory. This misunderstands the nature of modern warfare, especially the kind of asymmetrical warfare represented by ISIS.

Cong. Turner is right that President Obama owes the nation and the world a strategy for combating ISIS. And, the kind of strategy that might work, one that has Muslim nations in the lead, would hardly appease the amen chorus at Fox News. The necessary military component will offend some on the president’s left. So be it. Good policy, like good ideas, tend to anger the extremes on both sides. But, however the discussion of the new AUMF proposal proceeds, I hope these larger issues will be considered. They may not be determinative. The precise details of military engagement may dominate the discussion. But, there are trends in American politics that bode well or ill, and Congress should not lose sight of them.   

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