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It’s Always Mourning in America

For the most part, Memorial Day was celebrated in Washington with the usual cynical platitudes. Senator Tom Cotton, in a discharge of vacuity, sentimentalized the cost of combat while ever pushing for more of it. Par for the course in D.C. Some, however, considered this most recent Memorial Day something of a milestone: the first in fourteen years in which the United States was not engaged in a major ground war. President Obama commemorated the national day of patriotic mourning by giving a speech in Arlington National Cemetery, saying, “For many of us, this Memorial Day is especially meaningful. It is the first since our war in Afghanistan came to an end.” While it is technically true, the spirit of the president’s claim is undermined by the lingering presence of “training” troops in Afghanistan, as well as stealth troop buildup in Africa, and, of course, the ubiquitous drone program. America has been on a permanent war footing at least since 9/11, and Memorial Day weekend wasn’t an exception.

Our engagement with ISIS has been slowly gaining in intensity over the past year, too, ponderously building towards fortissimo. The creep is not inertia; there is nothing inevitable about the choices to send antitank rockets to Iraq, perform Special Forces raids (read: assassinations) in Syria, or conduct bombings. So while America may not yet have entire divisions deployed against the Islamic State, violence is being committed in our name. Only in the sensory-deprivation tank of Washington, D.C., would this not be considered a war.

The New York Times last week acknowledged and responded to this reality in an editorial that calls for Congress to pass a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the congressional approval that grants the executive legal authority to use the military to kill people. It reads:

As the war intensifies, it is more urgent than ever for Congress to approve a new Authorization for Use of Military Force that would provide adequate oversight and clearly articulate the long-term strategy for the fight against the Islamic State. The new mandate should replace the ones the administration is currently relying on and set clear limits that would preclude future administrations from using military force around the globe, anytime, anywhere, without consulting Congress.

Wanting to reign in the executive branch is a touching sentiment, but passing a new AUMF wouldn’t necessarily do that. In fact, it would be a bad idea. As the editorial asserts, Obama’s claims of legal authority in responding militarily to the Islamic State have been absurd, almost laughably so: the president cites the 2001 AUMF that gives the executive authority to fight Al Qaeda as also giving him authority to fight the Islamic State, a sworn enemy of Al Qaeda’s. Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith wrote about it: “If this remarkably loose affiliation with Al Qaeda brings a terrorist organization under the 2001 law, then Congress has authorized the President to use force endlessly against practically any ambitious jihadist terrorist group that fights against the United States.” Which is exactly what’s happened. Obama’s promises to not drag us into another Middle East war have proven to be bunk pretense that we aren’t already in one.

But retroactively condoning his mistakes with an AUMF wouldn’t do anything to rein him or future presidents in. It would also weaken Congress’s position. As Daniel Larison writes in The American Conservative, “Congress won’t regain any influence or relevance by becoming a rubber stamp after the fact. Passing an authorization won’t fix the problem that the U.S. blundered into this war without any debate or consideration of the likely costs.” 

The wars against Saddam and the Islamic State are connected by more than just geography—they’re also wars of choice, which had nothing to do with our existential security, in which our basest fears were transmuted into policy almost in the moment they were rationalized. In that respect, this has been an interesting fortnight, with American presidential candidates retroactively arguing the case for the Iraq War, answering the “knowing what we know now” question, while, simultaneously, hawks cry out for Obama to avenge ISIS’s capture of Ramadi and Palmyra. Wars of choice are the demarcations by which America ticks off the minutes of its now semi-permanent wartime. The obligations accumulate. The fear floats in a miasma, unpenetrated by critical reckoning. Our ability to triage danger disintegrates as threats and values blend together into a single, intimidating totem.

An op-ed in the Washington Post, indicative of that hawkish “we could always do more” sentiment, said, “The president’s plan [for ISIS], unfortunately, confined our efforts almost exclusively to Iraq. In the meantime, the group has managed to gain adherents in the Sinai, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even further abroad,” clearly implying that we need to take the fight to ISIS in all the entire Near East and large swaths of North Africa. Senator McCain, notoriously aggressive, was comparatively dovelike, only wanting to send a few thousand American troops back into Iraq. With constant pressure from the right, and occasionally the center, to be even more hawkish than he is, were Obama to meet his critics even halfway, he would have to commit America to three or four explicit, “full-time” wars, one of them possibly nuclear.

Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, summed up the institutional insanity succinctly in his Memorial Day tweet: “memorial day thought is not to never undertake wars of choice, but to be sure likely benefits outweigh costs & better than other options.” It isn’t coincidence that the age of American small-scale wars of choice coincided with the rise of the insipid neoliberal marketplace values of cost/benefit analysis. The calculus used to measure whether or not a war is “worth” fighting belies a barbaric faith in rationality, and ignores the moral considerations that should form the philosophical underpinnings of any foreign policy. The final justification of a war shouldn’t be whether or not we can afford it. It shouldn’t even be about whether or not we can win it. That style of reasoning exalts cheap stratagem over moral deliberation, and we wander on, lost in the permanent wartime.