Written by Joshua Marxen
As someone who would be proud to hold the title “journalist”, I was as horrified as anyone when we learned that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had beheaded not one, but two American journalists, shortly after forcing them, using who knows what terrible means, to give a speech in support of the fundamentalist, global jihad that ISIS aspires to. But as we respond to these crimes against us, we must remember what these journalists gave their lives for. If left unchecked by reason and due diligence, we will follow this fresh batch of anger and fear off a cliff. Our rights, our constitution, and our independence as a nation are at stake, and these are too high a price to pay for combatting ISIS.
Watch the War Powers
The sentiment that this conflict differs from the past threats from Al Qaida in Afghanistan was expressed by Obama in his public address on September 10th, in which he outlined a strategy for defeating ISIS. I do not disagree, and I think even by libertarian standards, the threat of ISIS is a legitimate casus belli. But the president is still on thin ice after overstepping the constitution in Libya and attempted air strikes in Syria last year.
In his address, Obama claimed he already has authority to order air strikes in Iraq and Syria, though he did not go into detail. Since the US has not been attacked by ISIS yet, and because they pose no imminent threat, the only places this authorization could possibly come from are the 2001 AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force against Al Qaida (AUMF), and the 2002 AUMF against Iraq. We can rule out the former, since Al Qaida and ISIS are no longer allies. The latter case is tenuous at best, since it is not the government of Iraq that is posing a threat to us. Instead of making dubious interpretations of these bills to satisfy strategic needs, he should go to Congress to get approval for air strikes and regional troop training.
We must also remember Congress itself has a bad record on holding the president accountable when it comes to issues of foreign policy, and too often gives him vague and broad powers (e.g., “all necessary and appropriate force” in the AUMFs) to conduct war. We must call out Congress if they fail to hold the President in check, and stop them if they attempt to give him overbroad and unnecessary war making powers.
Watch the War Narrative
The feasibility of the coming campaign against ISIS, as compared to the failed campaign in Iraq, hinges on a few key details.
First, we are told that ISIS, which aspires to statehood, represents a more conventional threat than the insurgent forces we fought in Afghanistan or Iraq. Therefore, this campaign will not suffer from the same kind of complications that arise while fighting insurgent forces within established states, the most important of which was difficulty distinguishing between civilians and combatants. So far, the conventional nature of ISIS seems to be a well-established fact. But we must keep in mind that collateral damage is an inevitability in any military conflict.
Second, we are told that we have broad support not only from European nations, but also from regional powers in the middle east, many of which normally disagree with the US and each other on regional policy goals. Since Obama’s strategy hinges on these regional groups, rather than US troops, to carry out the ground offensive, it is important that we have this detail right.
Unfortunately, this aspect of the narrative is not so solid. Our supposed allies in Europe are not as united as the president’s address would have us believe. Turkey and Germany have both expressed disagreement with the plan to carry out airstrikes in Syria.
And although it seems many states in the middle east are united against ISIS, they are still skeptical of American involvement in the region. Additionally, the United States has decided that many of these nations are unfit for participation in the coalition, including Iran and Syria. In particular, the so called “moderate opposition” to Assad’s regime in Syria may have recently signed a non-aggression pact with ISIS, to cooperate in dismantling the Assad regime. If this pact lasts after the civil war is over, Obama’s strategy to use these fighters to beat back ISIS in Syria cannot succeed.
We must remember that ISIS was able to arm itself well as a result of our assistance to what we believed to “moderate” rebel forces in Syria. If other current allies defect in the same way later, we will defeat one ISIS only to have created another.
Watch the Police
Another area that we must watch closely in the coming years is the way we deal with suspected terrorists in America. According to analysts at the RAND corporation, at least 12 Americans have joined ISIS. This is not unique to America, and in fact the problem is many times worse in Europe. Incumbent on these realizations is the fear that these people will use their status as American citizens to return as terrorist “sleeper cells”, and carry out attacks on our homeland. ISIS has threatened exactly this, saying that agents of theirs will blend into American life, not appearing to be Muslim or even religious at all, until they are awakened to carry out attacks.
How we respond to these realities may be the most important thing to watch out for. How do we combat these alleged threats? More racial profiling? Increased NSA monitoring and interception of private data? Detainment, imprisonment, and torture in secret prisons without trial? TSA checkpoints on every highway? We have seen what happens when we let fears of domestic terrorism soften the constitutional protections of due process, and, I hope, we agree that the results have been absolutely unacceptable. The fact that ISIS is more of a threat than previous terrorist organizations must not drive our government to (again) become an even broader and more ubiquitous evil to each other than any terrorists ever could be.
Watch the National Debt
Since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001, our national debt has risen from 7.5 trillion dollars to over 17 trillion at the beginning of 2014. Even after we pulled out of Iraq, our expenses were expected to keep rising. If it is true that ISIS represents an even larger threat than Al Qaida, we are certain to rack up at least as much debt fighting them. But with expenses guaranteed to be large, how will we prevent our national debt – the quantification of American dependence on China and other creditor nations – from falling still deeper into the red? Obama failed to answer this question in his recent address to the nation, and the media by and large have failed to ask it.
Before starting this war, we must remember the hard lessons that a decade in Iraq taught us. We must be sure that we are fighting for the right reasons and on an accurate knowledge base, and every detail coming from the media – the Islamic State’s goals, their capabilities, the support we have from other countries, the identities and goals of our allies – needs to be scrutinized mercilessly. In the name of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the American people will not tolerate more false premises or ulterior motives for inauspicious campaigns.
We must be sure that we fight the war correctly. The president needs to obey checks and balances set up by our constitution, and he must seek Congress’s approval for military action and funding. And Congress needs to recognize its role in checking the president’s justification for various proposed military actions and commitments. Congress must ensure that they do not, by accident or by the clouded judgment of public fear, grant the president power he doesn’t need and that his successors can abuse.
We must be sure that we preserve the shreds of respect we still retain for the constitutional rights that define our nation. We cannot let due process give way to knee-jerk fears and delicate trigger-fingers. US citizens accused of affiliation with ISIS must stand trial. Detained terrorists must not be subject to torture in any form, nor suffer cruel and unusual mistreatment in Guantanamo Bay or secret prisons in foreign countries.
Finally, we must be sure that the results of this war end with us. Not only do we need a strategy for strangling ISIS, we need a strategy for not letting even more insidious groups fill its space after we’re gone; for passing the resulting national debt onto as few future generations as possible; and for not being owned by China after the conflict.
Obama’s September 10th address mentions none of these issues. If what we hear about ISIS is true, we have time to develop a robust strategy that meets all of the requirements above. With foreign diplomatic and economic crises on all fronts, and our deepening debt at home, America is in a precarious state. If we aren’t careful, our conflict with ISIS may well be remembered as the last chapter in American history.