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Biden’s theatrical abuse of war powers in Syria won’t deter Russia
Last week’s raid by U.S. special operations forces to eliminate the purported global leader of the Islamic State is newsworthy for several reasons, but none so important as raising the question (once again) about why the executive office still retains these king-like powers. Another question is on timing and the curious proximity to the crisis in Ukraine: as if the execution of a military operation outside of a declared war zone in the Middle East — using the poorly constrained authorities of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) — is somehow a credible deterrent to Russian actions elsewhere.
Make no mistake, the two unique situations are intertwined. The United States remains hamstrung by a weak hand in defusing the Ukraine situation and faces a credibility crisis after so many years spent in a counter-terror war that has done little to reduce global violent extremism. The U.S. military is, unfortunately, caught up in successive administrations’ inability to make constructive policies that vector the defense and intelligence enterprises towards new and challenging threats to the international order. This is why yet another raid on a compound in some faraway corner of the world was chosen — to demonstrate the global reach of the U.S. military in a show of strength.
Yet the viability of this mission on the world stage of national security strategy is a hollow gesture when done under the auspices of an overreaching and vague legal authority.
U.S. military activities in Syria, dating back to the exclusive use of airpower in 2014 after the rise of the Islamic State in the contiguous region of Syria and Iraq, stems from the founding document of the Global War on Terror: the 2001 AUMF. Over 22 years, the only changes across various administrations have merely been expansion provisions and target lists/locales. The specific text related to the expansion of those powers regarding Syria and the Islamic State is simply “airstrikes and other necessary actions against ISIS and against Al Qaeda,” leaving wide open the table of options for the executive to perpetuate a flawed conflict strategy and sweeping authorities which are scarcely a demonstration of deterrent capability in more pressing security crises like those in Eastern Europe.
Following the removal of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in 2019 in a similar special operations raid, the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve command reported that “al Baghdadi’s death did not result in any degradation of ISIS capabilities in Syria” — it was within mere hours of al Baghdadi’s death two years ago that the target of last week’s raid assumed the mantle of leadership for the Islamic State. As Western forces learned over two decades of deconstructing insurgent networks in Afghanistan and Iraq, no amount of ‘key leader’ removal will result in the dissolution of the organization. Only a strong security apparatus and legitimate institutions in the affected state will prevent violent extremism, and continued intervention operations sans a legal declaration of war serve no purpose in American security legitimacy abroad.
For Ukraine, Russian deterrence is only going to happen when the United States figures out how to engage and confront Moscow in the hybrid domain. And of course, hard power still matters, but continuing the errant and reactive intervention of alleged high-value targets in undeclared wars is not using that hard power effectively.
To emphasize this point, how many U.S. citizens knew the name Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi before the White House press release identified the current ISIS commander? When former President Trump abused his war powers to eliminate Iranian Qods commander Qassim Soleimani, the target was a known commodity. The partisan criticism of that Trump action is curiously absent, much like when Biden first exercised his AUMF powers within weeks of inauguration by authorizing airstrikes against alleged Iranian-backed militants in Northeastern Syria. Even the staging of senior staff monitoring last week’s raid — replete with the drama of a helicopter malfunction — echo the iconography of the 2011 Osama Bin Laden raid at the direction of President Obama, a raid which then-Vice President Biden opposed for fear of civilian casualties.
The issue remains that, despite the president’s recent public comments of support for its repeal, the AUMF remains one of the biggest blemishes on American legitimacy, and a tool that the current administration has had zero reservations employing. The most recent exercise of this overreaching power was an attempt to demonstrate a strong hand to Moscow (and Beijing). But the reality is that it only makes the U.S. appear to be incapable of getting out of the pattern we’ve been in for 20 years while the complexity of the global security dynamic grows with every passing day.
Congress must regain its war powers authority; it is a bedrock construct that is supposed to distinguish the President of the United States from authoritarian leaders who have no qualms about ordering military actions under kingly mantles.
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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