US credibility against autocrats starts and ends with its use of war powers
The conflict in Ukraine endures, meaning there’s no shortage of hot-takes and declarations of penultimate showdowns in ideology. Sensationalism aside, what remains a fundamental reality in this crisis is legitimacy and credibility — the liberal orders’ way of doing business versus the authoritarians’ — whose system of doing business is better for the global pantheon of actors hinges on the very notion of legitimacy.
Credibility and transparency are theories I have written about extensively, owing to both America’s role as a stabilizing force and accounting for the faults that have led us to this challenging intersection of strategic competition. The connection may seem tenuous at first but remains no less true as the West, led by America’s efforts, seek to undermine Moscow’s legitimacy at every turn in Eastern Europe.
The United States is suffering from a lack of credibility and legitimacy abroad, and a surefire way to reverse this trend is by repealing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). The war powers act of yesteryear continues to make us bedfellows of authoritarians by allowing actions under the guise of defending against and interdicting threats, despite rhetoric to the contrary.
It was a mere few weeks ago I pointed to the weak hand the Biden administration has to play in the conflict and noted it “faces a credibility crisis after so many years spent in a counter-terror war that has done little to reduce global violent extremism.” I’ll stand by those words even though it hardly took clairvoyance to see that aggression in the weeks leading up to the invasion was compounding.
Russia has no legitimate justification for invading Ukraine, nor for its efforts to destabilize the Northern Atlantic and European alliances which it perceives as threats. Just like China has no legitimate claim to South Pacific Island chains or to any of the predatory efforts on Beijing’s part to bring more of the world under its heel. The actions of both, however, are correctly seen as rational behavior by realist theorists who prioritize their own security above all other scoresheets in international relations.
The rhetoric in the West can put Ukraine on a pedestal of good versus the growing shadow of evil, but our own bed must be made before our part in legitimizing Ukraine’s “1776” can actually achieve long-term geopolitical effects.
The United States is not credibly above reproach when we decry Russia’s illegitimate war in Ukraine, at least not while vague definitions and sweeping executive powers remain active and recently used under the expanded provisions of the original AUMF. As a refresher, the 2001 AUMF and its many biennial expansions authorize the president to conduct airstrikes and other offensive operations without prior approvals from Congress. These attacks are permitted so long as the engagement can be attributed to those groups responsible for the attack on Sept. 1, 2001. Or as recent expansions have allowed, against insurgent networks no longer beholden to those attacks on the homeland two decades ago. To compound the abuse of power, there is no sunset clause on the current revision to the AUMF, the president may expand targeted groups to the list and it merely requires 60 days of inaction by Congress for the measure to carry.
A growing number of bipartisan, registered voters are concerned with the monarchial war powers of the American presidency. According to a recent detailed survey conducted by the University of Maryland’s Public Consultation Program led by Dr. Steven Kull, a bipartisan 6 in 10 respondents favor repealing the 2001 AUMF. Near-identical numbers support curtailing presidentially approved arms sales exceeding $14 million, an executive authorization hailing from as far back as the Vietnam war.
Another leader who needs not confer with the representative governing body of state sits atop a fragile pyramid of authority in Moscow, a modern ‘first among equals’ whose overarching war powers have led him into this quagmire in Ukraine.
Perhaps this smacks of sensationalism. And no, the American president is not a tyrant who rules over their American subjects in abject totality. However, the hypocrisy of critiquing Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine is apparent when the American executive — party agnostic — has participated in this same abuse of powers for two decades now. The air campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria and elsewhere have been authorized in locales not formally declared a war by Congress. It could almost be likened to a “special military operation” intended to quell instability, only to create that very thing.
Credibility and legitimacy are all that matter in the great game going forward. Parsing words so that these similar actions are different ‘because it’s us’ only further diminishes our credibility when offering the liberal order as an alternative to authoritarianism.
Ukraine is the current crisis dominating the headlines, and the plight of the Ukrainian people remains a noble saga of self-determination. But Congress is so caught up in the race to discredit Russia’s actions that it is forgetting a sure-fire win for its own credibility at home and abroad.
Ethan Brown is an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force as a Special Operations Joint Terminal Attack controller. He is currently the senior fellow for Defense Studies at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, a contributor to the Diplomatic Courier, and has written for the Modern War Institute (West Point) and RealClearDefense. He can be found on Twitter @LibertyStoic.
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