The New York Times on March 15 (“Is the U.S. Now at War With the Shabab?”) spotlighted a jarring fact about post-9/11 life: “Americans can wake up and discover that they are already at war with yet another Islamist group in yet another part of the world – based not on congressional debate but on an executive branch decision” that such a group is somehow linked to Al Qaeda or ISIS.
An equally striking parallel fact is that practically no one in Congress seems to care enough to publicly object, including the chairmen and ranking minority members of the Armed Services or Foreign Relations or Intelligence committees – in both the Senate and House.
They are reconciled to – if not entirely comfortable with – clandestine war fought by the United States from Pakistan to Syria to Libya, from South Asia to the Middle East to North Africa.
War-making is one area where there are few complaints about President Obama acting upon a broad interpretation of executive authority that stretches the law and the Constitution beyond recognition.
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The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against the sponsors of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was cited by the administration as covering the recent American airstrike on a Shabab training camp in Somalia – a long way from Afghanistan and against enemies other than Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
But it was argued that the target was an “associated force.”
The same was true in a more recent large airstrike – using both manned and unmanned aircraft – in Yemen that killed dozens in a training camp for militants. The Pentagon claimed that the strike hindered planned attacks against “U.S. persons” – the same language used to describe recent strikes in Libya.
Collateral damage would seem to be an afterthought.
These official rationalizations can be used to “boot strap” any presidential deployment of military advisers into legalistic authority for a direct combat role – including missions with no connection to the original authorization for force.
In the global war on terrorism, the checks and balances on power written into the Constitution have given way to a unitary form of government under which several hundred unelected military and civilian bureaucrats – at the National Security Council, and in the C.I.A., Defense, State and Justice departments – decide on the use of military force by the United States.
It is not that we should abandon the chase to run down and kill radical Islamic extremists. But it still matters under what authority – where and when, and against whom – our government goes about making war.
If we do not worry about constitutional means, then the ends of our Republic come into question. Congress, do your job!
Jackson, a Davidson resident, was chief legislative assistant to the Senate Democratic Whip from 1974-77 and helped craft the original mandate of the Senate Intelligence Committee.