The “Islamic State,” or ISIS as others refer to them, present themselves to the world as an enemy that hardly anyone can stomach. Like villains in a Batman movie, they announce threats to the entire world, releasing gruesome videos of their killings to show that they are serious and without mercy. They proclaim the right to kill apostates and infidels who do not share their brand of extremist religion.
For these reasons, it is not surprising that President Obama has been able to send 1,200 soldiers back to Iraq and carry out more than 100 airstrikes, and commit himself to a longer engagement, without authorization from the US Congress. But the United States is still a constitutional democracy, or is intended to be one; and under our Constitution (and the War Powers Resolution) it is still the Congress that has to decide if the country is going to war.
It is interesting that many pundits who are quick to criticize Latin American “populist” governments for skirting the mandates of their own constitutions (or even for creating new constitutions through a democratic process) do not apply the same standards to the United States. What constitutional mandate is more important than the one to protect the people from their rulers sending them to die in unnecessary wars?
In any case, this will be the battle in the US over the coming months, led by members of Congress who take their commitment to the rule of law seriously. There needs to be a public debate about this military intervention that has already begun, and part of that debate must be in Congress.
After two long, unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that cost thousands of American lives, tens of thousands wounded and more than a trillion dollars, the American public is sick of war and wary of new, open-ended military ventures. Tens of millions of Americans – including many experts – also know that the threat of terrorism has been grossly exaggerated for political purposes. For Americans who stay out of zones of armed conflict, they are still many times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a terrorist attack.
And more importantly for the rest of the world – including the million Iraqis who lost their lives after the US invaded Iraq – both the terrorist threat that Washington has used as justification to mount a “global war on terror,” as well as the new threat from ISIS, are products of US foreign and military policy. Al-Qaeda and even Osama bin Laden himself were trained and organized in the Afghan civil war of the 1980s. This is where the United States poured in many billions of dollars that would produce the jihadis who would lead most major terrorist attacks, up to and including 9/11.
ISIS is itself a product of the dissolution of Iraq, brought about by the 2003 US invasion and occupation; and the civil war in Syria, to which Washington also contributed enormously by insisting on regime change as the starting point for any negotiated settlement and by enabling allies who poured weapons and fighters into Syria. The US miscalculated badly, believing those who said Assad would be easily toppled. Washington’s “experts” did not realize that many Syrians, perhaps the majority, could see that there was something worse than Assad’s dictatorship. And they were right, and now we have ISIS. This group could never have achieved its battlefield successes in Iraq without the military experience (as well as money and weapons) that they got from the Syrian civil war; as well as the US-created Iraq war and resulting, continuing sectarian civil war.
For all of these reasons and more, limiting the United States’ involvement in what promises to be yet another long war will be key to ensuring that this intervention does not do what prior US interventions in the region have done: cause further destabilization and give birth to new wars and escalating violence.
Just as the US Constitution provides a check on the president’s authority to wage war, at the international level there is the law of the United Nations, which is supposed to govern the use of force in international relations. Article 2 of the U.N. charter, to which the US is a signatory, prohibits the use of military force against other nations unless authorized by the Security Council. There are exceptions, for threats of imminent attack, but the US is not under imminent threat of attack and no one has claimed that it is.
That means that governments throughout the world should bring this matter to the Security Council, so that any military force that is authorized can be limited and oriented to ending the conflict, rather than waging war to promote the interests of any one country or alliance. This is an unusual situation, in that governments that have recently been on opposing sides of various conflicts – Iran, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States and of course the US and its Western allies – all see ISIS as a security threat. In fact, the US is currently – at least implicitly — co-operating with Iran and there is at least the possibility that Washington may give up on its disastrous “regime change” strategy in Syria.
Bringing the decisions on the use of military force to the Security Council is not only required by international law. It also provides the best hope of bringing about an end to the murderous conflicts in the region, by advancing a negotiating process among the various governments and perhaps some non-state actors that are involved. The alternative could be endless wars.