Perhaps the most enduring question of Barack Obama’s presidency is a deceptively simple one: is the United States at war?
“America is at a crossroads,” Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University in 2013. “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.” He then quoted James Madison, the fourth US president, who wrote, “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
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The speech was the closest Obama has come while in office to winding down — rhetorically, at least — what George W. Bush famously called the “Global War on Terror.” Yet, if Obama’s goal was to end, or even simply define, the war by the end of his eight years as president, he has failed. The country remains on a “perpetual wartime footing,” a phrase he used in the 2013 speech. That is due in part to the rise of ISIS (also known as Daesh), but the Obama administration’s militarism extends far beyond Iraq and Syria. And even the rise of ISIS’s precursor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, came as a direct response to the US occupation of Iraq.
Over the last eight years, the United States has bombed seven Muslim-majority countries and has increased or maintained troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are still 61 people detained at Guantanamo Bay, 19 of whom are scheduled for indefinite detention without charge or trial. If this is not the behavior of a country at war, the word has no meaning.
At the same time, life for most Americans is completely disconnected from this war — save for the proportionally small number of Americans who serve in the military, and Muslims (and those mistaken for Muslims) who have been disproportionately targeted for surveillance and have seen rates of hate crimes increase in recent years. The war has become so ubiquitous that it is invisible and unnamable. Some journalists and human rights experts have taken to calling it “The Forever War,” an accurate description of a policy that has become self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating.
All of this raises an important, though almost entirely ignored, question regarding the 2016 election: Will either candidate end the Forever War? Permanent war has become nearly as normalized as capitalism in the United States, and imagining what the end of either phenomenon would look like has become increasingly impossible. Examining Hillary Clinton’s record in office and Donald Trump’s bizarre and often incorrect statements about foreign policy suggests that whoever is elected, permanent war is here to stay.
The key to understanding the Forever War — and the legal basis for virtually every counterterrorism operation since 9/11 — is the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), a 60-word law passed in the days after the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. The legislation grants the president the authority to use military force against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and those who harbored them. But in the nearly 15 years since it was passed, the AUMF has been stretched to give legal cover to a war without boundaries against groups that didn’t exist in 2001 — groups like ISIS.
The Obama administration cites the 2001 AUMF as the legal basis for its anti-ISIS campaigns, a position Clinton agrees with, though both Clinton and Obama have called on Congress to pass a new, ISIS-specific AUMF. Crucially, neither Obama nor Clinton has called for any new AUMF to sunset the old one, risking the chance that a new authorization would simply create a parallel, permanent war. (To his credit, Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, introduced an anti-ISIS AUMF that would end the 2001 authorization).
Trump, for his part, hasn’t weighed in on a new anti-ISIS AUMF, though he has said he’d ask Congress for a formal declaration of war against the militant group. It’s likely, though, that Trump would — at the very least — continue the current operation against ISIS, regardless of congressional action or inaction. His clearest statement on how he’d prosecute the war came in a radio ad in which he promised “to bomb the hell out of ISIS.” He has also promised to “take their oil,” which would presumably require a massive US ground presence in Iraq, Syria or both countries.
The AUMF’s malleability and the normalization of permanent war means that there are few impediments to an executive branch that wants to carry out open-ended military operations. “Because neither the President nor the Congress have a clear vested interest in eliminating the 2001 AUMF, it is difficult to imagine that it will go away anytime soon,” Elizabeth Beavers, policy and activism coordinator at Amnesty International, told me in an email. “And as long as it exists, this state of war will be on autopilot, relieving both the President and Congress of the political accountability that comes with debates and votes.”
However, some close observers believe that the war has become so entrenched that it will continue even if the 2001 AUMF is eventually revoked. “The Forever War is unlikely to end, regardless of who is next in the White House, and regardless if whether or not the 2001 AUMF is repealed,” Rosa Brooks, author of the recently released book How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon, told me. Brooks, who is also a law professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at New America, adds that “it is just barely possible that Clinton, if elected, would take steps to bring aspects of the Forever War out of the covert world,” and increase accountability and transparency measures. Under a President Trump, she expects the war would continue but be “even less transparent and rule-bound.”
Jennifer Daskal, a former official at the national security division in the Department of Justice and assistant law professor at American University, warns of the dangers of a president unconstrained by Congress. “There is a reason the Framers gave Congress the power to declare war and the executive the power to make war — namely to avoid the concentration of so much power in one branch of government and ensure public debate and deliberation about the momentous decision to go to war,” Daskal told me. “The onus is now on Congress — to give the President the authority to fight the war we are actually engaged in.”
It’s troubling to imagine what Trump would be capable of with the existing level of unilateral authority granted to the executive branch. He has at times benefitted from an incorrect perception that he would pursue an isolationist foreign policy. Judging by his past statements and comments about his personality from those who know him, Trump’s faux-isolationist stance is superficial political posturing — like so much of his campaign. For all his talk of being against the invasion of Iraq and the bombing of Libya, he was on the record as being in favor of both campaigns before he was against them.
When asked by Howard Stern in 2002 if he supported the invasion of Iraq, Trump replied, “Yeah, I guess so.” Similarly, Trump favored intervention against Qaddafi in Libya, saying it would be “very easy and very quick.”
His ignorance about nuclear weapons and his seeming willingness to use them as a first-strike weapon combined with his penchant for vengeance makes it disturbingly easy to imagine him actually using nukes. The official US position is not to rule out a first-strike use, and Trump’s promise to be “unpredictable” makes that policy under a President Trump all the more dangerous. His ghostwriter for The Art of the Deal confirmed as much, when he told The New Yorker: “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes, there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”
More importantly, Trump’s stated policy positions shift so frequently and so drastically that it’s inconceivable that he would have the ability or desire to alter the course of the massive battleship that is the Forever War. The inertia that keeps the war going is magnified by politicians who want to sound tough, contractors who have a profit incentive to expand the conflict, and pundits and think tanks that all too often see militarism as the sole indicator of strength and leadership.
Meanwhile, this world of posturing politicians, profit-hungry contractors and militaristic punditry is the world Hillary Clinton inhabits. Her hawkishness has been well documented and there’s no reason to believe she would change her overall outlook while in the Oval Office. As The New York Times magazine laid out, Clinton “backed Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation to send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan,” “supported the Pentagon’s plan to leave behind a residual force of 10,000 to 20,000 American troops in Iraq,” and “pressed for the United States to funnel arms to the rebels in Syria’s civil war.”
On the campaign trail, she has largely continued to support hawkish policies. She has called for creating no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors in Syria — each of which are types of increased military intervention. Her positions are understandable, given the carnage in the country, but risk mission creep and could prove ineffective. She has also supported “intensifying” the air war against ISIS. In March, Clinton called for an “intelligence surge” to disrupt terror plots before they happen, a policy that would almost certainly result in increased surveillance of Muslim communities and risk sweeping up many innocent people. And Clinton has, at times suggested she would support a “Manhattan-like project” that would allow law enforcement to break into encrypted devices.
Even in a context devoted to matters of war and peace, the idea of ending the Forever War was almost entirely absent. In a town hall broadcast on Wednesday night — billed as the “commander-in-chief forum” — both candidates sought to position themselves as defenders of the military and by extension, defenders of the United States. While Clinton offered more policy specifics than Trump (who went largely unchallenged by moderator Matt Lauer) neither candidate questioned the overarching framework of the war on terror. There were no lofty statements of the need to take the country off a perpetual wartime footing and there was no discussion about repealing the 2001 AUMF.
Instead, each candidate attempted to balance American reluctance to commit to another large-scale ground war with reassurances that they will not hesitate to use military force at their discretion. Clinton, for her part, gave what sounded like an unequivocal promise about refraining from sending troops back to Iraq. “We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again,” she said. “And we’re not putting ground troops into Syria.” She then tempered the promise by adding: “Those are decisions we have to make on a case-by-case basis.” Despite Clinton’s claim, there are roughly 500 US special operations forces in Syria, 6,000 US service members in Iraq and an additional 1,600 private contractors.
Trump, for his part, continued to paint Clinton as more hawkish than himself. “I would be very, very cautious. I think I’d be a lot slower, she has a happy trigger,” Trump said. He also reiterated his promise to defeat ISIS quickly, without providing any details of his secret plan, an obfuscation that severely undermines any attempt to paint himself as less of a war candidate. He also doubled down on his neocolonial ambitions, repeating his claim that the US should have stolen oilfields in Iraq. “It used to be: to the victor belong the spoils. There was no victor, but I’ve always said: take the oil,” Trump said.
What this all amounts to is that although Obama was the first president to spend his entire tenure in office at war, he almost certainly won’t be the last. “This war, like all wars, must end,” Obama said in 2013. “That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.” Obama may be correct, but don’t expect Clinton or Trump to close the book on the Forever War.