The Pentagon wants to extend the 2001 Congressional authorization of war against Al Qaeda, enacted following the 9/11 attacks, “at least 10 to 20 years.” If granted by Congress, that would mean open-ended, executive branch secret war in many parts of the globe. The Nusra Front in Syria could be attacked by the US, as could Islamist fighters in northern Yemen and beyond. Drones and Special Forces operations, under the 2001 blanket authorization to use military force, already target insurgents in Yemen, who had nothing to do with 9/11.
The “long war” doctrine is an unofficial plan, drafted in the Pentagon in 2005 by top consultants including counterinsurgency specialists David Kilcullen and John Nagl, for a continuous state of combat lasting between 50 and 80 years, the scope of which encompasses but is hardly limited to Iraq and Afghanistan. Kilcullen, an Australian, already has implemented the policy in Indonesia, Thailand, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan’s northwest frontier, the Horn of Africa, Paris, Geneva and London. In 2007, Kilcullen was senior counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus.
Re-authorization of the 2001 AUMF would be the equivalent of making the Long War official policy. That would mean trillions of dollars spent over as many as twenty presidential terms, kept largely secret from the taxpaying public. The costs alone would have a devastating effect on budget deficits. (Kilcullen, David. The Accidental Guerrilla, 2009, p. xvi)
In the hearings last week, when freshman Senantor Angus King (I-ME) tried to point out that the 2001 AUMF does not even cover “associated forces of Al Qaeda,” he was rebuffed by senior Democrat Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), who claimed that the original applies automatically to new battlefields. (New York Times, May 16, 2013)
Hawks in Congress may want to tighten the legal authorization by applying it to new conditions, while anti-war critics correctly fear Congress might simply authorize what they call a “forever war.”
Newcomers like Senator King worry that the Obama administration has “essentially rewritten the Constitution,” giving rise to a new Imperial Presidency, buffered by an expanded security state. If Congress succumbs to executive power, the Constitution’s system of checks and balances will be effectively shredded. For example, Congress two years ago passed legislation claiming that the 2001 AUMF allowed the indefinite attention even of alleged terrorists not connected to 9/11 in any way. The federal courts have blocked the statute’s blanket coverage, but the Obama White House is appealing.
Former Senator Jim Webb, a Vietnam veteran and navy secretary under Ronald Reagan, has written a stinging denunciation of Congressional abdication of its constitutional role in making foreign policy, including its co-equal role in war-making. (“Congressional Abdication,” The National Interest, March-April 2013) Webb argues that the present Congress has failed its duty in comparison with an earlier generation of elected officials who wrote the War Powers Resolution. He faults the “inaction (some of it deliberate) of key congressional leaders” for an “erosion” of power to the executive branch, citing Libya as a recent example.
“It is not hyperbole to say that the president himself can now bomb a country with which we maintain diplomatic relations, in support of loosely aligned opposition groups that do not represent any coalition that we actually recognize as an alternative.” Webb wrote. “We know he can do it because he already has done it.”
The constitutional crisis dampens the options of any critics or movements accustomed to seeing anti-war voices in Congress react to voices in their districts. If Congress indeed becomes “irrelevant,” options are few and familiar to anyone with a historical memory:
- Challenges in the 2014 and 2016 primaries;
- Legal appeals;
- Extra-parliamentary direct action and resistance.
If these seem remote at the moment, there will be more Benghazis and Boston Marathons to provoke Americans to action. If progressives are silent, distracted or incoherent, however, these crises may benefit a coalition of the neo-conservatives and the Tea Party in rough years ahead.