U.S. Military Campaign Against the Islamic State: If It Looks Like a War

Like many terrorist organizations, the Islamic State may become a legitimate state one day. Pictured: Raqqa, Syria, the de facto capital of the Islamic State. (Photo: Beshr O / Flickr Commons)

The U.S. is waging war on the Islamic State without a renewed AUMF. Pictured: the Islamic State’s de facto capital, Raqqa, Syria. (Photo: Beshr / Flickr Commons)

Many of us (myself, for instance) are unaware of the extent of U.S. military operations against the Islamic State. Turns out, writes Robert Golan-Vilella at the National Interest, the coalition has mounted nearly 6,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, with 3,300 U.S. troops deployed to Iraq. But…

Congress has yet to vote to authorize this war. Instead, the White House has argued that the Islamic State is covered under the terms of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).

At an event at the libertarian Cato Institute, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia)

… blasted his colleagues in Congress for their passivity and for their failure to vote on a new authorization thus far. Yet it’s the executive branch’s conduct that deserves particular attention. The United States began its operations against the Islamic State last August. The White House, as noted above, has maintained that it already has the legal authority to wage this conflict under the 2001 AUMF (and under the 2002 AUMF that authorized the Iraq War). It sent its proposed draft text for an AUMF against the Islamic State to Congress this February—six months after the operation had already started—and has not made any significant effort to try to win its passage. The Obama administration has stated repeatedly that it would welcome a vote in Congress to express support for the ongoing mission. But it has been equally clear that it doesn’t see a new congressional authorization as necessary, and that Operation Inherent Resolve will go on whether Congress votes for it or not.

Golan-Vilella goes on to cite Afghanistan, Libya and Guantanamo as other instances where the Obama administration has accepted without congressional approval, as well as reserving the right to attack the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if deemed necessary. Here’s how an administration — Bush’s, which was an outlier when it comes to rational and ethical national security, aside — such as Obama is enabled in this behavior.

The fact is that all of the political incentives that presidents currently face tilt in favor of encouraging them to use military force—as long as it doesn’t involve long-term commitments of ground troops. Killing suspected terrorists is politically popular and relatively low-cost. Compare the reaction to the undeclared war against the Islamic State with the reaction to the recently concluded nuclear agreement with Iran. The Iran deal has sparked ferocious opposition from Congress, while the one-year anniversary of America’s campaign against the Islamic State passed with little public notice. … Speaking at Cato, Senator [Tim Kaine (D-VA)] asked, “What does it say about Congress, or about our institutions generally, when you see congressional indifference to war, but energetic congressional desire to challenge diplomacy?” The answer may well be that it is simply easier now for a president to make war than it is to seek peace.