Harold’s Koh’s grudging defense of the domestic legal basis for President’s Obama’s use of force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is important. It adds little new to other defenses of the President’s position – a legal position, I have argued in past posts, is politically stupid and constitutionally imprudent but nonetheless legally defensible under Article II and the 2002 AUMF (but not the 2001 AUMF). Koh’s defense is nonetheless important because it definitively reveals the death of the Obama administration’s ambition to end what Koh has described as “the Forever War.”
As I said, I think this is a misreading of Koh. Koh still clings to the notion that a Congress ducking legislative action for many reasons — almost none of which have to do with electoral pressure in the short term, and many of which have to do with the fact the President has given them the luxury of dodging responsibility for what will almost certainly be an unpopular and probably unsuccessful escalation — will provide the President a more appropriate authorization for his escalation later this year.
Achieving a better outcome is not politically impossible. Representative Adam Schiff’s proposed AUMF, for example, would accomplish in one bill three of the four steps described above. It would (1) authorize “all necessary and appropriate force against ISIL” for eighteen months, limited geographically to Iraq and Syria and operationally to no US ground forces; (2) repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF now and (3) repeal the 2001 al-Qaeda AUMF in eighteen months. If the President openly backed such legislation, it would place his war with ISIL on a much firmer legal ground, while advancing his longer-term objective—announced in 2013 at the National Defense University —of taking us off a permanent war footing.
This President came to office to end war. But he just declared a new one, sparing Congress of its constitutional responsibility to back him. Instead of breaking the vicious cycle, and asking Congress to live up to its constitutional duties to confront the Islamic State, the President prolonged a dysfunctional historical pattern that is inconsistent with the design of our National Security Constitution. As the conflict with ISIL stretches on, pressure will build to send advisers and other boots on the ground to further the goal of destroying ISIL. Americans and the world will grow weary and forget the exigencies that led this President to take this course.
There is still time to avoid this vicious cycle. When Congress returns, some will be lame ducks, and for all, the next election will be at least two years off. If members of Congress seriously care about their prerogatives, they will have no excuse for again ducking their constitutional responsibility. And this President will have those same years to consider what his constitutional legacy will be. History will treat this President far better if he leaves office not just having fought the Islamic State, but having lived up to his promise to put us on the path toward ending the Forever War.
That is, Koh still clings to the fantasy that the President will agree to limit his own authority when Congress won’t force him to do so.
Goldsmith, on the other hand, presents Koh’s painful somersaults as endorsement of the notion that Islamic extremism will remain a threat for the foreseeable future, and therefore Congress may finally replace the 2001 AUMF with something that better authorizes Forever War for the long haul.
I always thought the debates about what to do with the 2001 AUMF – repeal it, let the President interpret it flexibly, or replace it with a more rigorous updated authorization – turned on intuitions about the persistence and danger posed by Islamist terrorists. It is now clear that the Islamist terrorist threat is not dissipating anytime soon. It is also clear that the President’s interpretation of the 2001 AUMF to fight this threat, whether lawful or not, is certainly a stretch, even on Koh’s account. It is also pretty clear, finally, that Congress will not easily authorize wars on a threat-by-threat basis. So perhaps now we can start talking about realistic statutory replacements for the 2001 AUMF.
For Koh, this is a choice between a legally defensible (in the short term) justification, and more legally justifiable way to bring the Forever War to a close. For Goldsmith, however, the choice is between a legally suspect justification for the Forever War, and a more defensible justification for the Forever War.
Forever War or Forever War.
Whichever you choose, the President will retain the authority to override limits on domestic spying (written by … Jack Goldsmith!), to override due process to drone-kill American citizens, to indefinitely detain men who were sold for a bounty, and to train and arm men we’ve given cause to loathe us. From time to time, Congress will be called on to stir itself from suckling, Matrix-like, on its Defense Contractor cash to approve funds and expand immunities. The fight Osama bin Laden started will continue to rot our government and Constitution. “They hate us for our freedoms,” they used to say, and now our experts embrace indefinitely signing away those freedoms in increasing bits, via legally suspect means or legally defensible.
All the while, this Forever War will suck up money that should be spent funding things like education and infrastructure, things that used to sustain America’s vitality. And the constant threat inflation needed to justify this Forever War will distract from far more pressing threats, like climate change and Ebola and reckless banksters.
Perhaps the only thing that hasn’t worked as OBL wanted is that America’s refusal to deal with climate change will kill devout Muslims in far greater numbers, at first, than it will Americans.
Institutionalizing the Forever War might as well be declaring victory for OBL.
The most telling part of this exchange, though, is how Koh, after having referred to a bunch of fellow law professor critics as “commentators,” then called law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell, writing for a publication with greater reach and news credibility than the legal blog Just Security that Koh was writing in, “the blogosphere.” Read more