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Why Americans Should Be Wary of a New AUMF

A ruined building in war-torn Syria (Photo: rensenbrink78 via Flickr).

A ruined building in war-torn Syria (Photo: rensenbrink78 via Flickr).

By Luke Tully

Congress is potentially going to passing a new Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) bill to sanction the Obama administration’s air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The only problem is that the activity this AUMF seeks to “authorize” began over six months ago. The redundant nature of the bill makes it little more than a rubber stamp from Congress.

The administration says that an AUMF from 2001, drafted and passed hastily just days after 9/11, authorizes the current air war against ISIS. This AUMF authorizes military action against Al Qaeda and “associated forces,” or any group involved in the 9/11 attacks. Critics point out that the phrasing of the sixty-word document is so ambiguous as to be able to authorize military action anywhere in the world, against myriad different groups, and with no clear objective. The White House’s current application of the law to attack ISIS seems to prove this point. Obama is now using this AUMF to attack ISIS despite the fact that the group didn’t come into existence until well over a decade after 9/11, and that ISIS and Al Qaeda are not “associated,” but are in fact sworn enemies. This illogical application of the 2001 AUMF by itself is an affront to the rule of law, and has been a major cornerstone in expanding the War on Terror into a global, permanent war. The absurdity of the administration’s claim hasn’t stopped most of Congress from trying to retroactively give their blessing to the United States’ most recent endeavor in the Middle East. Of course, in a political culture as hawkish as America’s, some members of Congress are against the new AUMF because it doesn’t give the president enough power to unilaterally conduct war anywhere in the world.

Given the extremely elastic interpretation of the 2001 AUMF, one would think Congress would be eager to make the new one airtight, with no loopholes granting broad authority. But that’d be wrong. The bill is worded in such a way that it could in reality sanction much more warfare than the bill’s authors intended. The bill prohibits “enduring offensive ground combat operations,” but the definition of “enduring” is not specified. The nebulous nature of this wording opens the AUMF up to being abused. In fact, the Obama administration has stated in plain language that the vague phrasing is intentional. The bill also elides the question of geographic limits — a hallmark of the “war on terror.” And like the 2001 AUMF, it also authorizes force against any group associated with ISIS and sets ambiguous or non-existent standards for that “association.” As Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, points out, ISIS is more of a brand than a centrally organized political unit. We are already seeing in Libya and elsewhere that terrorist groups with no real connection to ISIS are declaring loyalty to the so-called Islamic caliphate. Potentially any group around the world can join the ISIS brand, thereby becoming a legitimate target for military force unilaterally decided by the executive. The new AUMF has only one advantage over the old version: It “sunsets” after three years, meaning that it would need to be re-approved by Congress to continue.

The provision allowing for ground troops could be utilized in the near future. According to a CBS poll, a majority of Americans now support using ground troops to combat ISIS. This eagerness by the American public to insert ground forces into yet another quagmire in the Middle East is demonstrative of several threads in current U.S. politics, culture, and media.

Firstly, the media has fulfilled its role by producing a nonstop stream of ISIS porn for mass consumption. This brings the media’s activity in accordance with a goal of ISIS: for their self-consciously constructed videos of horrific cruelty to be as widely disseminated as possible. The never-ending discussion of fear-mongering minutia (some recent headlines declared ISIS is using kittens and Nutella to lure women) serves to create an atmosphere of hysteria. This is far from the first time that the media has committed gross negligence by failing to question the government narrative and paving the way to war.

Second, American citizens are easily manipulated into approving war. This certainly has deep historical roots, but some scholars point to two important factors: a deep-seated fear of the “other” that can be easily provoked, as well as the fact that the U.S. is one of the more militaristic societies on the planet. The utter depravity and horror of war has been veiled for the vast majority of American civilians, and after over a decade of war in the Middle East, going to war just seems like the natural and ordinary thing for America to do. This tendency is abetted by a political class that views going to war as America’s a useful foreign policy asset rather than a last resort. The media’s overwhelming preference for pro-war talking heads, as evidenced in a recent study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, doesn’t help the matter, either.

Much of the responsibility for this willingness to wage war must be placed with the American people, however. Given the catastrophic consequences of America’s recent military interventions in the Middle East and North Africa, with hundreds of thousands of dead civilians, millions of lives disrupted or ruined, and decades to go before the damage can be repaired, it requires an impressive combination of historical amnesia, myopia and hubris to believe that sending in troops will solve the ISIS problem. Of course, the formation of ISIS was in part facilitated by a power vacuum created by the American invasion of Iraq. So ISIS was in part created by a U.S. ground invasion, and now the American public wants to use a ground invasion to get rid of ISIS. As the saying goes, when all you have is an enormous military, every problem looks like it has a military solution.

Americans need to remain cognizant of the way fear is used as a tool by political and media elites to perpetuate war, forever growing and strengthening the military industrial complex. The 2001 AUMF must be repealed immediately. (Obama has stated he wants to repeal it, but then again he says a lot of things.) In an ideal world, the new AUMF would not even be written, but in the instance that it does become law, the usage of the new AUMF must be closely monitored so it isn’t turned into a blanket authorization for worldwide “anti-terror” aggression. The American people need to remember the destruction caused by the U.S. military in Iraq, and that this destruction is not a byproduct of democracy-building, but the direct purpose and function of any military force. Those who invariably respond to these critiques that we must “do something” when something horrible is happening in the world, need to reassess America’s role on the world stage. America doesn’t just lack the capability to police the world, but also the right to do so.

Luke Tully is a writer living in New Brunswick, NJ. He (re)tweets @howstrange.