Even principled conservatives (yes, there are some, unlike principled liberals, a species near extinction) are beginning to shudder at Obama’s war-intensity and expansion of Executive power. George Will, not my favorite, had cogent things to say about Obama’s maneuvering into war with ISIS. His Washington Post article, “Obama is defying the Constitution on war,” (Sept. 17), states the US last declared war in 1942 (on Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria) as part of WWII, and continues: “Today’s issue is not whether to declare war but only whether the president should even seek congressional authorization for the protracted use of force against the Islamic State.” Implication: the declaration, which can be skipped, is a self-evident power of the president, thereby making congressional authorization a mere formality, if sought at all.
Our Con Law POTUS, even more than his predecessors (Bush at least had John Yoo to lie for him, with spurious Office of Legal Counsel rationales), rapes the fundamental law of the land. This is not surprising, given his denial of habeas corpus rights to detainees, and now, drastically enlarged the violation of civil liberties through his massive surveillance of the American people. Current NSA policy and John Brennan’s promotion of torture are fit companions to his thinking and policies on behalf of the American people. From this overall context of despisement for the law, shared, but not carried to such lengths, by his predecessors, we have his high-tech fascination with getting away with murder (literally), as in drone assassination.
That is what I mean by sterilized armed conflict, put on already in airstrikes against ISIS: clean, polished, sophisticated, obliterative, Attila the Hun as Peace Nobelist. Here I credit George Will with insight and conscience, both seriously deficient in Washington, even though he tends to think in terms of formalities; not the act of war, but its proper constitutional authorization, most drives his criticism. In today’s sorry political culture, we should be thankful even for crumbs.
“Promising to ‘destroy’ this group with the help of ‘a broad coalition’ of ‘partners,’” he writes, “President Obama said last week, ‘I welcome congressional support for this effort.’ He obviously thinks such support is optional, partly because this ‘effort,’ conducted by U.S. combat aircraft, is something other than war. There he goes again.” Exactly, there he goes again, the ISIS business merely the last (thus far) in a whole string of violations, using, as in Libya, airstrikes to circumvent the clear meaning and understanding of international law.
Airstrikes are magical, as though not, like ground forces, crossing borders, and as though aggression stops at 25,000 feet. Collateral damage, the phrase itself sounds innocuous enough. Put on your surgical gloves, press buttons, in the case of drone warfare, thousands of miles away, and be lulled to sleep by an Eichmann-like bureaucratic calm. Sanitized killing, whether from above or afar, nonetheless requires effort: Obama’s promise du jour of no ground forces against ISIS makes no mention of Special Ops, CIA, or other modes of favored paramilitary engagement. (When we hear the term “advisers,” think Korean War, a status widely employed since to disguise regularized, hardcore military operations and personnel.)
In Libya, Will points out, the bombing took place over seven months with no authorization of any kind, Obama’s lawyers contending that thousands of air strikes “did not constitute ‘hostilities,’” and he quotes Ilya Somin of George Mason School of Law: “’Claims that large-scale air attacks don’t count as warfare were specious when the administration trotted them out in defense of its intervention in Libya in 2011; and they have not improved with age.’” Jack Goldsmith of Harvard Law, himself implicated in shaping some of these rationales before going to Cambridge, and therefore a shrewd inside-observer, says, Will quotes, “Obama has become ‘a matchless war-powers unilateralist’ who ‘removed all practical limits’ on presidential war-making when exercised, as in Libya, for proclaimed ‘humanitarian ends.’”
Obama claims that as commander-in-chief he has inherent powers to authorize bombing ISIS in Syria, and goes further, citing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS, when, again Will, AUMF was specific to al-Qaeda, whereas ISIS “did not exist in 2001 and was born in hostility to the perpetrator of the 2001 attacks, al-Qaeda.” But that’s what White House lawyers are for. Hence, using AUMF is unjustified for advancing a protracted war, whether air strikes or ground forces, nicely put in this context by Goldsmith as “’presidential unilateralism masquerading as implausible statutory interpretation.” My translation: Obama, international outlaw.
Significantly, no White House Legal Counsel opinion has yet been forthcoming on airstrikes against ISIS. Bring back John Yoo from Berkeley, which is only fitting as Obama plays piggy-back jumping over Bush. Finally here, Will quotes Bruce Ackerman of Yale Law, who “says that nothing Bush attempted ‘remotely compares in IMPERIAL HUBRIS’ [my caps.] with Obama’s ‘assertion of unilateral war-making authority.’” For Will—the conservative– to be so critical, imagine what a radical might say: fascism, in process or already present.
Momentum for war is building. Things are marvelously heating up, the compression of events, plainly orchestrated by the White House, Dempsey and Hagel before Senate Armed Services Tuesday, Obama at MacDill Air Force Wednesday, the House vote, same day, Kerry soon at the UN, a veritable bandwagon of support, “friends and allies,” between 30-40, standing in the wings, all that is missing…armed forces on the ground. I’ve already discussed Dempsey in a CP article. Let’s jump into midweek events with the House approval of arming the Free Syrian Army. Senate is expected today, 9/18, to follow, but with one corrective. Obama, with full bipartisan cooperation in the House, had the debate and vote associated with the stopgap spending bill to fund the federal government, though in separate votes, while in the Senate, the two measures are connected.
There is nothing like the patriotic glory of war to bring the parties together. After Obama “personally pleaded for support,” the House voted 273-156 “to authorize the training and arming of Syrian rebels to confront” ISIS. This is a comfortable margin in light of party battles, logjam, stalemate on a wide range of issues, none of which has a bearing on war, intervention, assassination, full-spectrum adherence to imperialism and militarism. Consensus reflects what really matters to the nation. Peace and social justice are NOT part of the mix, except that in their case neither party has a positive record on these and related issues (corporate regulation, strict environmental controls, vital social safety net), thus if you will a negative consensus dedicated to monopoly capital, which helps to fuel the positive consensus on war.
Times reporter Jonathan Weisman’s article, “House Votes to Authorize Aid to Syrian Rebels in ISIS Fight,” (Sept. 17), an accurate mouthful, states that the measure “took on outsize importance and was infused with drama, reflecting the tension and ambiguity of members wary of the ultimate path to which any war vote could lead.” It seems no-one believed Obama’s protestations about no boots on the ground. War is fully expected on (that detestable phrase) “both sides of the aisle,” and by supporters and critics alike. The latter included negative votes, supporters who didn’t think Obama went far enough, and opponents fearful of the war consequences but not very forceful in their opposition. If ISIS could be eliminated with one nuclear blast, there would be few teary eyes in Washington, except for concern its absence would remove a prop for counterterrorism, surveillance, assassination, military appropriations, the operative doctrine of permanent war.
Whatever happens, ISIS don’t self-destruct. The US needs your threat-presence to validate its global leadership, until—as in the song—the next one comes along. Or, is manufactured. Meanwhile, Obama at MacDill, the staged background of servicemembers: “’The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission. I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.’” What Weisman called “theater” in preparation for the debate and vote, Obama, Biden, others manning the phones calling for support (Do not undercut the president in wartime), somewhat weakens the sincerity and strength of the promise.
Ah, the Voices for Freedom. Here is Ruppersberger, ranking Democrat on House Intelligence: “’Obama is our commander in chief. You don’t weaken the commander in chief when we’re in a serious crisis.’” And McCarthy, Republican and majority leader: “’I know that many of us in the chamber, from both sides of the aisle, believe the president’s strategy should do more to eradicate these extremists from the earth. But despite these reservations—reservations that I share—we must support this amendment and take this first step.’” Another Republican: “’What would our allies think if we rejected the president’s request?’” With statements like this from both sides of the aisle, opposition to ground forces and all-out war would be paper-thin, easily overcome by the patriotic hysteria worked up by government and the media, and the predisposition, already found, of a nation losing ground as the once supreme arbiter of world politics and military affairs.
Then on the same day, we see Obama at MacDill Air Force Base, the occasion, along with the House vote and the previous day’s Dempsey-Hagel testimony, a perfect demonstration of wartime symbolism. He addresses the troops, providing assurances of no ground war to the public, and meets with leaders of his military command, but also brings along his national-security advisers (including Hagel), so that we have a consummation of the marriage of the Military and the Executive. Obama appears increasingly needful of the military glorification of his own person.
Times reporter Michael Shear, in his article, “Obama Insists U.S. Will Not Get Drawn Into Ground War in Iraq,” fails to account for the intensive stage-management and military-executive interplay, but he is right in emphasizing the electricity in the air: “Aides described the president’s visit to the base as part of an effort to convince Americans of the need to confront the extremists in the Middle East. They said Mr. Obama was in a period of intensive focus on national security… [beginning with last Wednesday’s speech] and will continue next week in New York when Mr. Obama attends the annual meeting of world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly.”
According to a NYT/CBS poll Shear includes in his article, showing only one-third of the public approving Obama’s conduct of foreign policy, the negative rating concerns lack of stronger military action taken against ISIS, in other words, open sesame for the reversal of policy just announced.
A further straw in the wind (more like the whole haystack flying about) is the position taken by General Ray Odierno, a bellwether of military planning, presently Army chief of staff, who spoke to The Times and other news organizations on the 18th, one day after Dempsey, in Wiesbaden. Times reporter Alison Smale was present. In her article, “U.S. Army Chief Says Ground Troops Will Be Needed Against ISIS,” one senses a palace revolt of sorts, the military chafing at the bit, while, as with Dempsey’s testimony hinting at ground forces in Iraq, the White House is quick to deny insubordination on both their parts. I take this as illustration, instead, of movement in the intended direction, ISIS’s utter destruction, which Obama signaled in his earlier speech. Neither Dempsey nor Odierno expressed confidence in air power or in the mobilization of an international coalition, leaving therefore a big fat question mark concerning the use of American ground forces.
Odierno is shrewd. Smale reports that he believed “the battle against Islamic State jihadis would only succeed with the use of ground forces,” but “he was careful not to specify that those ground troops had to be American.” Airstrikes thus far “have halted the advance of the Islamic State,” but ultimately, “’you’ve got to have ground forces that are capable of going in and rooting them out.’” Significantly, he held that ISIS “cannot be allowed to have a safe haven across the border in Syria.” My translation: at the very least, airstrikes in Syria, and with that precedent, reason found for the ground invasion, Janus-faced, to be sure, directed against both ISIS and Assad. The article concludes: “He [Odierno] did not comment on whether there would be a need for military action against the jihadis if they pull back to Syria, but he did specify that they should not be allowed a safe haven anywhere. The Islamic State poses ‘a long-term threat’ to Europe and the United States, he said.’”
My New York Times Comment on the Weisman article, Sept. 18, follows:
Free Syrian Army–who thought up that name? Public relations by the Obama administration in the rush to ANOTHER war. The authoritarian mindset: You must support your Commander-in-Chief, for what would the world otherwise think? What would happen to American global leadership? Congress in lockstep. Threat to the Homeland. Forward march.
America hungers for war–polls criticize Obama for not going far enough. Air power is the magical nostrum, a sanitization of death that, because at a distance, weighs on no-one’s conscience. Curtis LeMay is a choir boy compared with present advocates of warfare. Bomb, bomb our way to Virtue.
Obama promises no ground forces–unless of course circumstances change (circumstances we define to suit our pre-planned policies). Like drone assassination, military policy/action falls on deaf ears, America enclosed in a wall of deniability.
The Middle East is merely one of many war fronts. One that focuses attention, and detracts from critical awareness of the wider geopolitical framework. Global hegemony is not a slogan but a fact, or rather, aspiration, the RENEWAL of supremacy in the world system as the global order itself, despite US wishes and efforts, is becoming multi-polar.
Obama sends his proxies, Dempsey, Hagel, Kerry into the fray, just as America enlists its proxies, the international coalition, to do battle. For what? We are never told, but must take POTUS on faith–an unwise thing to do. War Nobelist to the rescue.
Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.