Eid Mubarak. Today Ramadan ends, a big celebration in the Muslim community.
Saudi Arabia chose to celebrate by doing what they’ve been doing for over a hundred days: bombing Yemen.
Yet the continued plight of Yemenis — and the expanding humanitarian crisis — has fallen off the media radar.
That’s particularly notable given that according to the formal readouts, every conversation the President has had with Gulf allies about the Iran deal has also included some discussion of Yemen. There’s his conversation with UAE’s Crown Prince, on July 14:
The President spoke today with Crown Prince Mohammed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. The President shared details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iran’s nuclear program agreed to among the P5+1, the European Union, and Iran. In discussing the details of the JCPOA, the President affirmed that it will verifiably prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon by cutting off all of the potential pathways to a bomb while ensuring the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program going forward. Recalling the productive discussions with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members at Camp David in May, the President underscored that the United States is as committed as ever to working with our Gulf partners to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, support our partners in building their defense capabilities, and pursue together efforts to resolve the region’s crises. The President and the Crown Prince also discussed the urgent humanitarian situation in Yemen, the importance of getting assistance to the Yemeni people in all parts of the country, and the need for a political solution that ends the ongoing conflict.
His phone conversation with King Salman, also on July 14:
The President spoke today with King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia. The President offered his personal condolences over the passing of Prince Saud al-Faisal. He shared details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iran’s nuclear program agreed to among the P5+1, the European Union, and Iran. In discussing the details of the JCPOA, the President affirmed that it will verifiably prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon by cutting off all of the potential pathways to a bomb while ensuring the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program going forward. The President underscored that the United States is as committed as ever to working with our Gulf partners to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region and promote stability as well as resolutions to the region’s crises. Consistent with the productive discussions the President conducted with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members at Camp David in May, he reiterated the United States’ support in building the capabilities of our regional partners. The President and the King also spoke about the urgency of stopping the fighting in Yemen and the importance of ensuring that assistance can reach Yemenis on all sides of the conflict through international humanitarian channels.
And his face-to-face meeting today with Foreign Minister (and former Ambassador to the US) Adel al-Jubeir:
Today, President Obama met in the Oval Office with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir to discuss a range of regional and bilateral issues. They welcomed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached between the P5+1, EU and Iran on July 14 which, once fully implemented, will effectively cut off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon and verifiably ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful going forward. Following on the Camp David meetings with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders, they discussed efforts underway to further enhance the close and long standing partnership between our two countries and build Saudi Arabia’s security capabilities, noting that Secretary of Defense Carter’s visit to Saudi Arabia next week will advance those discussions.
They also reviewed efforts to jointly address and seek to resolve regional crises. They discussed the urgency of stopping the fighting in Yemen and the importance of ensuring that assistance is reaching Yemenis in need through international humanitarian channels without any impediments or delays. They discussed cooperation to reach a genuine political solution in Syria. They also reaffirmed our mutual commitment to reinforce efforts to support Iraq and continue the coalition’s work in the counter-ISIL campaign. The President asked Foreign Minister Al-Jubeir to convey his best wishes to King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
The Houthis had started to lose ground (reportedly at the hands of Emirate forces, not Saudi ones) in Aden, but that hasn’t stopped the bombing.
Given the way the Obama Administration has tied some solution to Yemen with the Iran deal, I think it fair to ask whether there has been some kind of understanding that even as Obama pursues this deal, the US will continue to facilitate Saudi Arabia’s efforts to extend its hegemony at the expense of Shias (in Yemen, but also in Syria).
The war in Yemen is America’s war, even if we have no known troops involved. But the US is simply disavowing it — it, and the disaster the war has brought for an already beleaguered people.
It has been nearly 20 months since the group of P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States) and Iran reached an interim agreement limiting Iran’s work on nuclear technology. Progress since that interim agreement has been painfully slow (and obstructed as much as possible by Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, neocons in Congress and United Against Nuclear Iran), with a number of “deadlines” for achieving the final agreement missed. Journalists covering the final phase of negotiations in Vienna over the last two weeks eventually got so exasperated with the process that they began reporting on the number of Twizzlers consumed by the negotiators.
Fortunately, the US, led by John Kerry, with technical support from Ernest Moniz (with the backing of Barack Obama) and Iran, led by Javad Zarif, with technical support from Ali Akbar Salehi (with the backing of Hassan Rouhani) did not give up on the process. A final agreement (pdf) has now been published.
The following sentence appears in the agreement twice. It is the final sentence in the Preface and is the third point in the Preamble:
Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.
That is the heart of what the entire process has been about. Iran’s uranium enrichment work, which grew to over 18,000 centrifuges installed at two facilities, was viewed as a rapid route to a nuclear weapon. Even though no facility in Iran has been identified where enrichment was proceeding to the highly enriched levels needed for a bomb and Iran had demonstrated no ability to make a bomb from highly enriched material, “conventional wisdom” stated that Iran would only need a few months (as of the signing of the interim agreement) to produce a working bomb. Throughout the process, Iran has claimed the work was only for peaceful uses (electricity production and the production of medical isotopes). Things had gotten really ugly back in 2011 when the IAEA lent credence to claims that originated in the Laptop of Death, where Iran was accused of past work aiming at developing a bomb. By making the blanket statement that Iran will never seek a nuclear weapon, Iran is publicly acknowledging that the West will reinstate economy-crippling sanctions should evidence surface that it is seeking a weapon. Further, by saying it “reaffirms” as much, Iran is sticking to its previous claims that it has not sought a weapon in the past. Those dual points are important enough to be appear twice on the first page of the agreement.
On first blush, the final agreement looks quite robust. I intend to address only the technical aspects of the agreement and will leave to others analysis of the aspects of the plan relating to the removal of sanctions, although it is interesting that it appears that the plan will be submitted for UN Security Council approval before Congress is expected to have a chance to chime in.
The plan is referred to as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. It establishes a Joint Commission of P5+1 and Iran that will monitor implementation of the agreement.
In order to achieve the primary aim of taking Iran’s “breakout time” (the time estimated to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb) from the range of just a few months at the time of the signing of the interim agreement to the stated goal of at least one year, Iran now agrees to stop all enrichment work with radioactive material at its Fordo site (the underground site that prompted the US to develop a new generation of bunker buster bombs) and to greatly reduce the number of centrifuges in use at Natanz. Further, Iran will no longer enrich uranium above 3.67%. Iran agrees to keep its stockpile of 3.67% enriched uranium at 300 kg or less. Here is the wording for the key part of that aspect of the agreement (from page 7): Continue reading
While I was gone, the NeoCon Hertog Foundation announced an “advanced institute” featuring Scooter Libby and Paul Wolfowitz describing the “unexpected events, rivalries, counter-moves, mistakes, and imperfect understandings” behind the Iraq War, which also appears to offer some second-guessing about how the Iraq War still made sense even in light of the catastrophe it wrought.
It seems Judy Miller is not the only Iraq Hawk trying to relitigate her Iraq failures (the timing may not be unrelated, as Roger Hertog, has funded all three Iraq Hawks, among others).
I’m particularly interested in this paragraph, seemingly admitting the failures of Iraq while weighing it against what is portrayed as the failure of the first Gulf War.
Twice in the last quarter century America has gone to war with Iraq, and the two were in a state of low-level conflict during the interim. Both times America went to war with Congressional authorization, at the head of an international coalition, and in support of U.N. Resolutions. The 1990–1 Persian Gulf War ended quickly with minimal U.S. casualties, but left a brutal dictator in place and American interests at risk. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 quickly removed the regime that had repeatedly defied America and gave Iraqis a chance to devise their own future. However, the war soon devolved into a messy combination of insurgency and sectarian fighting that brought thousands of U.S. casualties, sapped American will and credibility, and worked to the benefit of America’s other regional nemesis, Iran. These events occurred not in isolation, but against the backdrop of broader international developments, particularly the ending of the Cold War, the attacks of 9/11/2001, and the on-going U.S. confrontation with radical Islam.
Iraq War 2.0 removed the defiant Saddam, who purportedly threatened American interests — Scooter and Wolfie judge — but it helped out “America’s other regional nemesis,” Iran.
At least the Iraq War architects are willing to admit their blunders made Iran stronger.
But the assessment of the impact on Iraq is the signature here: America generously gifted Iraqis with “a chance to devise their own future” — Scooter and Wolfie judge, making no mention of America’s past role in Saddam’s rise and success against Iraq — but it brought a “messy combination of insurgency and sectarian fighting … and thousands of U.S. casualties [that] sapped American will and credibility,” as if American will and credibility should have any role in the matter of giving Iraqis a chance to devise their own future, which was only granted, according to this description, because America’s formerly favored dictator threatened its interests.
Not only does the passage make no sense, but it obscures the other horrible thing about Scooter and Wolfie’s legacy: half a million Iraqi dead, or more.
Twelve years after these policy makers brought us to war on a pack of lies, their conception of failures doesn’t even account for the hundreds of thousands of purportedly liberated Iraqis they killed.
Alert readers here who have kept their scorecards up to date know that the “secret” US effort to train rebels in Syria actually began as early as November of 2012, more than two and a half years ago, even though Obama did his best to obscure that date once it became expedient to nudge the date of entry for the first graduates of that program. The US later decided to go above-board with the training effort for Syria (after spectacular failures of identifying “moderates”), and last fall approved $500 million to a program to train and arm those elusive “moderates” once again. Despite the huge expenditure authorized for the program, it turns out that the US appears to have overlooked a key detail: the “moderate” rebels whom they seek to now fight only ISIS and not Assad simply don’t exist. We can only presume that those who wish to fight Assad are funneled to the covert program, which appears to have been put into place to topple Assad from power.
Robert Burns of AP has a story today describing how the US program has failed to produce the thousands of trainees that were planned:
Fewer than 100 Syrian rebels are currently being trained by the U.S. military to fight the Islamic State group, a tiny total for a sputtering program with a stated goal of producing 5,400 fighters a year.
The training effort is moving so slowly that critics question whether it can produce enough capable fighters quickly enough to make a difference. Military officials said last week that they still hope for 3,000 by year’s end. Privately, they acknowledge the trend is moving in the wrong direction.
The main problem thus far has been finding enough Syrian recruits untainted by extremist affiliations or disqualified by physical or other flaws. Of approximately 6,000 volunteers, about 1,500 have passed muster and await movement to training camps in other countries. Citing security concerns, the Pentagon will not say exactly how many are in training. Officials said that as of Friday, the number was under 100 and that none has completed the program.
“We have set the bar very high on vetting,” said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, the Central Command special operations commander who is heading the program, wants volunteers with more than a will to fight.
“We are trying to recruit and identify people who … can be counted on … to fight, to have the right mindset and ideology,” and at the same time be willing to make combating IS their first priority, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the House Armed Services Committee on June 17.
“It turns out to be very hard to identify people who meet both of those criteria,” Carter said.
Many Syrian rebel volunteers prefer to use their training to fight the government of President Bashar Assad, the original target of their revolution. While IS has been a brutal occupant of much of their country, the rebels see the extremists as fighting a parallel war.
Ah, but fear not, dear US war mongers! Burns reports that when Tammy Duckworth recently asked Joint Chiefs Chair Dempsey if this training effort was worth continuing, he had this ringing endorsement of the the program: “It’s a little too soon to give up on it.”
So, we’ve had the covert training going on for 32 months. We approved $500 million for open training nine months ago, but have under a hundred trainees in the program now, with zero graduates. And yet, if you ask the military, training in Syria is just getting started and it’s too soon to give up on it. Recognizing failure is just not possible in the US military.
During the whole flap over Seymour Hersh’s reporting questioning the Osama bin Laden raid, I kept pointing to Ron Wyden’s comments to John Brennan about lies he told in March, probably at his Council on Foreign Relations speech.
I guessed that Brennan’s likely lies had to do with whether we partner with anyone who commits atrocities and whether Brennan has worked directly with Iranian Republican Guard leader Qasem Soleimani. And after Hersh’s report that we still have a dark site on Diego Garcia, I added Brennan’s claim we outsource all our interrogation to partners.
Keep those potential lies as you read Moon of Alabama’s guesses about why the Syrians announced this raid before the Americans did.
I will go ahead and say it this time. I told you so. Back in December, the Obama Administration tried its best to create the fiction that the war in Afghanistan was coming to an end. I called bullshit then. Finally, four months later, the New York Times has come to the same realization as well:
Months after President Obama formally declared that the United States’ long war against the Taliban was over in Afghanistan, the American military is regularly conducting airstrikes against low-level insurgent forces and sending Special Operations troops directly into harm’s way under the guise of “training and advising.”
In justifying the continued presence of the American forces in Afghanistan, administration officials have insisted that the troops’ role is relegated to counterterrorism, defined as tracking down the remnants of Al Qaeda and other global terrorist groups, and training and advising the Afghan security forces who have assumed the bulk of the fight.
But the US military thinks nothing of gaming the system to bring action where they want it:
Rather than ending the American war in Afghanistan, the military is using its wide latitude to instead transform it into a continuing campaign of airstrikes — mostly drone missions — and Special Operations raids that have in practice stretched or broken the parameters publicly described by the White House.
“They are putting guys on the ground in places to justify the airstrikes,” one of the officials said. “It’s not force protection when they are going on the offensive.”
And it’s not just field-level commanders making these decisions to circumvent the conditions laid out by the White House for fighting:
Commenting on the continuing military operations against the Taliban, the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, vehemently denied accusations that he was putting troops into harm’s way just to enable more airstrikes.
He has insisted that it is within his purview to target Taliban insurgents who pose a threat not just to American or NATO troops but to any Afghan security forces. And his options on the ground were clear, he said in an interview, even if Washington’s public description of them was not.
“Washington is going to have to say what they say politically for many different audiences, and I have no issue with that,” General Campbell said. “I understand my authorities and what I have to do with Afghanistan’s forces and my forces. And if that doesn’t sell good for a media piece then, again, I can’t worry about it.”
Honey badger John Campbell don’t care about selling a media piece when there are brown people to be droned.
But even this expanded role for US troops over what they are supposed to be doing isn’t helping, as our “trained” Afghan troops continue to lose the war. Buried deep in the article is a leak of classified information that Afghan troop losses this year are running 54% higher than last year’s disastrous level of losses. This will not be sustainable for very long at all. It seems likely to me that sometime this summer (or at the very least no later than next summer), the Afghan military will simply melt away in the face of Taliban wins on multiple fronts.
The US has been mired in its failed training of “troops” in Iraq and Afghanistan for so long that analysts have now been watching one of the latest Islamic State videos in awe. It turns out that IS has actually managed to institute a few basic military disciplines into its troops and to capture footage of that expertise in action. McClatchy’s Mitchell Prothero talked to a number of these analysts and collected their comments. As a long-time critic of US training in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was intrigued by what the analysts would consider “good” training and how that would differ from the farces that have been perpetrated by US trainers. My cynic’s eye immediately went to this paragraph:
In several scenes that were filmed under fire, for example, Islamic State fighters moving into the Baiji refinery complex appeared to be employing textbook infantry tactics. They also were carrying not only sufficient ammunition for a military operation but also backpacks stuffed with additional supplies, including water – a sign that the Islamic State has a well oiled logistical network for supporting front-line fighters.
What a shock! Troops fighting in a desert have the foresight to enter battle with water bottles in their backpacks! Now why didn’t the US think of that in training the Iraqis?
Snark aside, though, one of the main points of the article is that IS has managed to develop a logistics network that puts the Iraqis to shame. It turns out that in Iraq (and Afghanistan, for that matter), the “government” that the US has set up is too corrupt and inept for a supply chain to work properly:
The military experts said the video provided a disconcerting comparison with Iraqi government troops. They noted, for example, that the scenes of packs filled with ammunition and food contrast with constant complaints from Iraqi troops that the government regularly fails to deliver ammunition to combat forces and often leaves them in the field to fend for themselves for food and water, a circumstance that can lead to the looting of civilian homes and shops.
It seems pretty clear that Prothero feels that the inability to deliver supplies is at least partly due to corruption. From his Twitter feed last night:
on a personal note: brave Iraqis save my life repeatedly. it’s the venal, cowardly and corrupt system I’m required to criticize for them.
— Mitchell Prothero (@mitchprothero) April 21, 2015
As for where those supplies for IS come from, I’ve seen at least one report of IS stealing and redistributing supplies from relief agencies. It seems logical that if they are doing this, those supplies would also find their way to IS fighters as well as civilians.
Prothero also notes that IS has learned to cover their heavy artillery so that it is harder to see from the air:
The video also revealed that the Islamic State appears to have adapted to American airstrikes. Most of the images of artillery, rocket launchers and even heavy anti-aircraft guns mounted on the beds of trucks include a level of camouflage designed to mask the weapons’ positions’ from the air.
Given the constant barrage of US bombs, it’s not too surprising that IS would figure out that they should hide their weapons from jets and drones. Although I’m hardly a weapons expert, one thing that stood out to me about these heavy weapons, though, was the failure to brace against recoil. It seems impossible that IS would have had any kind of accuracy in targeting with the degree of recoil seen in these weapons as shells were fired.
In the end, though, one thing stands out. This propaganda video, for all its purported slick production values and military expertise on display, covers a military operation that eventually failed in the face of those unrelenting US bombs.
Last Thursday, LAT had an article voicing the concerns of national security types who think our support for the Saudi assault on Yemen is ill-considered. In part that’s because the Saudi assault is helping AQAP.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, widely regarded as the terrorist network’s most lethal franchise, has capitalized on the chaos by sharply expanding its reach. Fighters loyal to the group claimed control Thursday of a military base and other key facilities near Mukalla, an Arabian Sea port in southern Yemen.
In part, that’s because the Saudis — as has been true for years — aren’t very good at avoiding civilian casualties.
Pentagon officials, who pride themselves on the care they take to avoid civilian casualties, have watched with growing alarm as Saudi airstrikes have hit what the U.N. this week called “dozens of public buildings,” including hospitals, schools, residential areas and mosques. The U.N. said at least 364 civilians have been killed in the campaign.
The U.S. role was quietly stepped up last week after the civilian death toll rose sharply. The number of U.S. personnel was increased from 12 to 20 in the operations center to help vet targets and to perform more precise calculations of bomb blast areas to help avoid civilian casualties.
The obvious problems with the assault led one anonymous source to label it a disaster, and another source to explain we’re helping Saudi Arabia bomb Yemen to placate them about the Iran deal.
A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing briefings on the air war, called it a “disaster,” saying the Saudis don’t have a “realistic endgame” for the bombing.
“We’re doing this not because we think it would be good for Yemen policy; we’re doing it because we think it’s good for U.S.-Saudi relations,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration official who is now with the Center for a New American Security.
Amid this growing concern about the Saudi clusterfuck of their own back yard, Obama chatted with King Salman last Friday.
Today, the President spoke with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia to discuss recent developments in Yemen. The President reaffirmed the strong friendship between the United States and Saudi Arabia and underscored our commitment to Saudi Arabia’s security. The President and King Salman discussed the recent adoption of a resolution on Yemen in the United Nations Security Council and next steps in the effort to resume the political transition in Yemen, including talks facilitated by the United Nations. The President and King Salman agreed that our collective goal is to achieve lasting stability in Yemen through a negotiated political solution facilitated by the United Nations and involving all parties as envisioned in the GCC Initiative. The President and King Salman also discussed the importance of responding to the humanitarian needs of the Yemeni people.
In short, that concern reflected in the LAT piece seemed to translate into an increased effort to get the Saudis to stop bombing so wildly.
Then the Saudis bombed an Oxfam warehouse.
Oxfam has vehemently condemned yesterday’s Coalition airstrike on one of its storage facilities in Saada Governorate in northern Yemen.
Grace Ommer, Oxfam’s country director in Yemen said: “This is an absolute outrage particularly when one considers that we have shared detailed information with the Coalition on the locations of our offices and storage facilities. The contents of the warehouse had no military value. It only contained humanitarian supplies associated with our previous work in Saada, bringing clean water to thousands of households. Thankfully, no one was killed in this particular airstrike although conservative estimates put the death toll in the country as a whole, since the conflict began, at around 760 – the majority of which are civilians.”
To be sure, the Saudis have bombed plenty of civilian targets (including milk factories!) as have the Houthis. But coming as it did in the wake of this escalation of US concerns about civilians, it struck me as particularly telling.
Yet, in spite of what appears to be out complete inability to rein in the Saudis, we’re still deploying more ships to the region, on top of what we’ve already got in place, on the premise of stopping Iranian arms trafficking (which Josh Earnest said last week we have no evidence of, and where do we get off complaining about arms trafficking?!?!).
And all those ships are doing nothing to ameliorate the growing humanitarian disaster.
Why are we doing this?
Update: Forgot to link this AJAM piece reporting concern on the part of the Generals about this.
And a number of CENTCOM and SOCOM officers believe the Saudis are in over their heads in trying to reverse Houthi gains in Yemen through military intervention.
“We had a great opportunity to engage with the Houthis on this, but we gave in to the Saudis,” Horton said, “and frankly, they cannot begin to manage this. They have all the toys but few people who know how to effectively use them. Their NCO and officer corps are largely untested, and their enlisted men are drawn from the lowest rungs of Saudi society. If they get bogged down in Yemen, I wonder about the loyalty of many of the soldiers and NCOs. The Egyptians will not fare much better.”
Update: See also Paul Pillar.
The current, woeful state of the Iraqi military raises the question not so much of whether the Americans left too soon, but whether a new round of deployments for training will have any more effect than the last.
Yes, indeed. We already know that all of the previous rounds of training Iraqi troops failed miserably. That indisputable fact allows Nordland to pose the question of whether this new round of training could be expected to somehow be successful after all those failures. Since the article offers no description of any changes in strategy or methods in this new round of training, it’s hard to see how the answer is anything other than a strong probability that this round of training also will fail.
The catastrophic demise of Iraq’s forces is staggering with the numbers Nordland presents. At its peak, the Iraqi military numbered 280,000. And yet once ISIS advanced, the melting away of multiple whole divisions of troops whittled Iraq down to a force that perhaps was as low as only 50,000. This current training effort, being carried out by 3000 US forces, is expected to add, at best, 30,000 Iraqi troops. Nordland admits, however, that the number is likely to be “far fewer”. Despite this depressing math, Nordland doesn’t get around to pointing out just how little impact such a small increase in Iraqi forces is likely to have even if their training somehow turned out to be successful.
But don’t despair. Our intrepid Speaker of the House is on duty to make sure that we continue repeating our training failures:
Boehner blamed “artificial constraints” on the 4,500 American trainers and advisers to the Iraqi army, suggesting that a slight increase in U.S. troops could occur if the Pentagon’s commanders suggested they were needed to help direct fighting against Islamic State forces. “They’re only there to train and advise the Iraqi army, and the fact is it’s just that – training and advising,” he said, dismissing fears that his proposal would lead to tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops locked in another bloody ground war.
“There’s more that we can do, with limited risk, and it wouldn’t require that many more people,” the speaker said.
“Please,” Boehner seems to be saying, “Let’s get back to a full war in Iraq, but without calling it war.” Presumably because the last one worked out so well.
Postscript: Marcy has been the one tracking maneuvers around the issue of an AUMF (even as recently as yesterday), but the Boehner quote above comes from a larger article about a possible new Iraq AUMF. Boehner is fighting Obama’s proposed AUMF. But he’s fighting it because he doesn’t want Obama to give back some of the unlimited war powers of the Executive:
“Until the president gets serious about fighting the fight, until he has a strategy that makes sense, there’s no reason for us to give him less authority than what he has today, which is what he’s asking for,” Boehner told a group of reporters Tuesday, following his trip with lawmakers to several Middle East hot spots during the congressional recess.
Take that, Mr. President. We won’t give you authority for this war until you ask for even more unfettered power than we already grant you!
Back when President Obama introduced his version of the AUMF (which didn’t sunset the 2001 AUMF and didn’t include meaningful limits on the ISIL war), I suggested he was leveraging the competing interests of Congress to retain maximal Executive powers.
Those who seek to limit Executive authority would be nuts to pass such an authorization.
Indeed, there are already signs of dissent from Democrats. “[W]e must [pass an authorization] in a way that avoids repeating the missteps of the past, and that does not result in an open-ended authorization that becomes legal justification for future actions against unknown enemies, in unknown places, at unknown times,” Senator Pat Leahy reacted, recalling how the 2001 AUMF had been used to authorized indefinite detention and drone strikes far from the battlefield.
That may be part of the point. Republicans have already objected to the one biggest limit in the AUMF, its promise not to use “enduring” ground troops, which hardliners think are needed. “If we’re going to authorize use of military force, the president should have all the tools necessary to win the fight that we’re in,” John Boehner told the National Journal and other reporters.
Which may mean such a bill will not pass Congress. Even as Republicans are squealing about what they claim is a presidential power grab on immigration, they appear content with this particular power grab — particularly if the President will bear responsibility for any big reverses in this war.
If this AUMF doesn’t pass, President Obama will continue to rely on fairly audacious claims about other sources of war authorization, all the while claiming Congress is responsible for not authorizing what he’s doing. If this AUMF does pass, President Obama may continue relying on a hodgepodge of AUMFs, thereby claiming fairly unlimited boundaries to his war powers.
Heads or tails, we’re likely to still end up with claims to fairly unlimited Presidential authority to wage war.
We see in this story why Obama was clever to play the AUMF debate the way he did, following the Syria AUMF debacle in 2013. Obama, recall, declared that he didn’t need a new AUMF, waited months to send up a draft, and then sent up a draft that contained authorities duplicative of those he already claimed. This wasn’t principled or good government, in any sense, but the result is that Obama has successfully turned congressional calcification and paralysis to his advantage.
The reason is that because of the way he postured the matter, nothing actually hinges for Obama on congressional passage of a new AUMF; the President, after all, claims the authority to do everything he wants to do against ISIL under current authorities. In fact, as I explained the other day, congressional failure to act arguably constitutes acquiescence to his broad claim of authority under the 2001 AUMF, since few of the members of Congress who are refusing to pass a new authorization are also claiming that the president lacks legal authority to take action. Many Republicans are actually complaining that he is not doing more than he is against ISIL.
Obama, in other words, put himself in a position in which congressional action would strengthen his hands and congressional inaction—always the likeliest outcome these days—would also strengthen his hand, or at least not weaken it.
It was a smart play on the part of White House lawyers.
I’d be hooting “I told you so” if the implications weren’t so dire.
Obama claims these AUMFs authorize not just bombing in Iraq and maybe Syria and who knows why not Libya and while we’re at it everyone’s having fun bombing the shit out of Yemen these days. But they authorize a claim to breathtakingly expansive authority for the President.
Fourteen years later, you might think Congress would start to get jealous of its own authority and begin reclaiming it. And, in fact, Republicans are squawking about limited Executive power grabs elsewhere.
But not on war. Never on war.
Remember when this war began because “They hate us for our freedoms,” which in part included real limits to Executive authority?