Obama’s Two New Illegal Wars


Adam Serwer is confused by my position:

I find Andrew Sullivan's contention that "Obama is now engaged in two illegal wars – in Libya and in Yemen," particularly odd. Sullivan defended the administration's authority to target radical cleric and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, but those strikes were being undertaken by JSOC under authority claimed under the [Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF)]. It doesn't make sense to argue that when the military was targeting him, it was legal, but the CIA's increased involvement makes U.S. operations in Yemen an "illegal war." If JSOC can legally target al-Awlaki, then there's little legal basis to argue that the CIA can't. If, on the other hand, you believe that operations in Yemen represent an expansion of the "war on terror" that isn't authorized by the AUMF, then the CIA's involvement is legally troublesome. But at the time Sullivan wrote that "Yemen surely is a "declared battlefield" – at least as far as al Qaeda is concerned." As far as the administration and most of Congress seem to be concerned too.

These are good points to which I would clarify thus. I do believe that in the matter of a potential battlefield like Yemen, strikes against known terrorists trying to kill Americans are warranted, if we are sure we can kill or capture the enemy with accuracy and minimal civilian casualties. Sending in a SEAL team to capture or kill bin Laden is not at the level of a full-scale war with Pakistan -  although we should note that does not seem that way to Pakistanis, hence the huge wave of anti-Americanism that has resulted.

There must come a point, however, when you are not targeting a one-off specific figure or cell, but launching round after round of drone missiles into a country, as into the Af-Pak border. The drone 115221978attacks into Pakistan are mighty close to warfare, it seems to me. There comes a point, in other words, at which a military kinetic action becomes a war. Drones are particularly dangerous instruments in this respect. They allow a president to pick war at will, and placate the public with no military casualties. This is precisely what the Founders were scared of. We have created a King with an automated army, and no Congressional or public check outside of elections, when the damage may have already been done.

Maybe the line between targeted anti-terror strikes and de facto, ongoing warfare is hard to define. Sometimes, the executive may need to act urgently and unilaterally to counter an imminent military threat. But we are so far away from that now it's almost irrelevant. I guess ongoing, routine military attacks constitute war in my book. (One good test is: if it were happening to us, would we consider it an act of war? If a foreign power dropped a drone missile on your block, would you call it a military kinetic action?) But my point is that it is this inherent lack of clarity is what guided the Founders to do what they did. They set the standard for warfare very high. They wanted to restrain the Prince. And that restraint on presidential power is at the core of the American experiment of divided powers. Which is why, the Bush-Cheney position was not only, in my view, imprudent, but deeply hostile to the core founding values of this country.

The thing about war, as the Founders understood, is that you rarely end up with anything like the state of affairs you started with.

You can begin with a few "military advisers" in South Vietnam and end up in years of brutal, counter-productive warfare. You can start with Wolfowitz's fantasy of a quick and cheap Iraq intervention and end up a decade later a trillion dollars short and with a real anxiety that the whole place will go to hell when and if the US really does pull out. You can help some Afghan rebels defeat the Soviets and set in train a war that is now at its most intensive decades later.

But at least we did have a debate and vote with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan. There was no Congressional debate over Libya or now the escalation in Yemen. The administration's argument on Libya, as revealed yesterday, is that the conflict is too constrained and limited to be called a war. Please. Tell that to those hearing shells and missiles explode in military installations around their neighborhoods in Tripoli. Thousands of air raids and sorties have occurred since this not-war was not-declared.

Second: mission creep is not some lefty fantasy. It's a historic reality. The deployment of violence wreaks its own consequences that are often uncontrollable except through more force.  And the notion that we are not trying to install regime change in Libya through military action is ludicrous. What was justifed as a one-off attempt to prevent an alleged massacre of "tens of thousands" is now an on-going, soon to be billion-dollar war that's going nowhere slowly, but clearly trying to kill and traumatize a dictator and destroy the physical components of his regime. On what grounds does an American president in a fiscal hole like ours borrow another billion dollars to finance an intervention in a civil war in … Libya?

And I do think the military/CIA distinction matters. One thing I've learned this past decade is that the CIA is pretty much its own judge, jury and executioner. It is much less accountable to the public, more likely to break the laws of war and destroy the evidence, more likely to do things that could escalate rather than ameliorate a conflict. To read that the CIA has been given a green light to do what it wants to do in Yemen with drones seems to me easily over the trip-wire for war that requires Congressional buy-in.

Technology has made this more problematic. If the CIA, based on its own intelligence, can launch a war or wars with weapons that can incur no US fatalities, the propensity to be permanently at war, permanently making America enemies, permanently requiring more wars to put out the flames previous wars started, then the Founders' vision is essentially over. I think it's a duty to make sure their vision survives this twenty-first century test.

(Top photo: A US 'Predator' drone passes overhead at a forward operating base near Kandahar on January 1, 2009. By Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images. Side photo: Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan activists gather for a protest rally in Karachi on June 4, 2011, against US drone attacks in the country. A drone attack June 3 was the ninth reported in Pakistan's border area with Afghanistan, branded by Washington the global headquarters of Al-Qaeda, since US commandos killed bin Laden in the garrison city of Abbottabad on May 2. By Asif Hassan AFP/Getty Images.)