THE drone strike that accidentally killed two hostages held by Al Qaeda, one of them American, in Pakistan’s northwest frontier was a rare moment of media attention for a seemingly endless military campaign. It’s six years old if you date it to President Obama’s escalation of drone warfare, 11 if you date it to the first American drone strike inside Pakistan, and 14 if you date it to when United States Special Forces first slipped into Afghanistan after 9/11. By any estimate, our AfPak intervention has lasted longer than most major wars in American history. By the third estimate, it’s lasted longer than several of the biggest ones combined.
There have been periods in this long conflict when the United States was arguably fighting with some hope of final victory. But that possibility went the way of most victories sought by foreigners in Central Asia, and now we’re in a very different mode. Our AfPak war today, with its drones and Special Forces and deliberately light footprint, is open-ended by design, a war of constant attrition that aims just to keep our friends (such as they are) in power and our enemies from gaining ground.
In essence, what we’ve chosen in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan is a kind of “frozen conflict,” in which a war is pursued without any vision of an endgame, and that’s actually the point. “Frozen conflict” is a term you’re more likely to hear applied to the borderlands of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where the Kremlin has encouraged low-grade civil wars (in the Caucasus, in Moldova, now Ukraine) thatare designed to just percolate and fester, keeping Moscow’s former satellites from turning fully to the West.
But while America’s motives are very different, we have this much in common with Putin: We, too, see advantages in managing conflicts, intervening just so far and no further, keeping a hand in (or a drone above) without seeking a final victory or a final peace. That’s true of the AfPak wars; it’s true for now of our interventions against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; it’s true of smaller antiterrorism forays the world over. It’s even true of our quasi-conflict with Putin himself: He wants to divide and destabilize Ukraine without actually conquering it, we want to limit his gains without provoking escalation, and the result is grinding violence without much chance of resolution.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that President Obama’s grand strategy (such as it is) is defined by a desire to lay down some of the burdens of the Pax Americana. I also wrote that it’s nearly impossible for a superpower to simply slip into a supporting role. Combine Obama’s vision with that Atlas-Can’t-Shrug reality, and frozen conflicts are the near-inevitable result: In theater after theater, this administration has us in just far enough to shape events, but without a plan to win it.
Over the next 18 months, you’re going to hear Republican politicians and — barring a Rand Paul upset — the eventual Republican nominee campaigning vigorously against this state of play, and arguing that America should be fighting more to win and less to draw. Napoleon’s maxim, “When you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna,” will be repurposed as a critique of this president and all his many half-fought, un-won wars.
That critique will have some teeth. Even frozen conflicts cost lives and treasure (and invite blowback), the world has grown more dangerous and chaotic across Obama’s second term, and the sense that American policy makers are constantly playing not to lose is plainly informing the calculations made in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing.
The problem is that Republican hawks have too many wars where they seem intent on turning up the heat, too many Viennas that they want to take at once. There is no sign as yet that the president’s would-be successors have clear strategic priorities; instead, the tendency is to treat every conflict that comes into the headlines, whether it involves Libya or Iran, Syria or Ukraine, AfPak or the Islamic State, as a theater where there’s no substitute for American-led victory.
Some of this is just posturing, and if elected no G.O.P. president (well, except maybe Lindsey Graham) would actually escalate militarily on every front at once. But it isn’t exactly clear what they would do, because their critique of Obama scores points without acknowledging the real limits on American power — and the structural, and not just ideological, realities behind the decisions that he’s made.There may be cases where America needs to fight to win, enemies that we need to actually defeat instead of managing. But there are also wars that shouldn’t be joined at all, and situations where a kind of frozen conflict really is the best out of our bad options. So the test facing this president’s would-be successors, the challenge that should be posed to them as candidates, is to tell us which kind of war is which.
Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution grants Congress the power to “declare war.”
.. In practice, however, it seems as if the rule is observed mainly in the breach. In the post–World War II era, American forces have been committed time and again even in offensive military actions without even the slightest effort to obtain congressional authorization.
.. The latest example occurred on April 6, 2017, when President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on Syria in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons
.. Unless there is classified information we don’t yet know, a strike of this nature is exactly the kind of military action that should require congressional approval.
.. We were not at war with Syria. We were not acting in immediate self-defense of our nation. We were not fulfilling a Senate-ratified treaty obligation.
.. Shrugging off the Constitution is a bipartisan practice.
- Who can forget President Obama’s strikes against Libya? He ordered offensive military action against a sovereign nation without a declaration of war.
- While George W. Bush obtained congressional authorization for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his predecessor,
- Bill Clinton, launched extended aerial campaigns in the former Yugoslavia with no congressional vote.
years of presidential overreach, congressional inaction, and partisan bickering have jeopardized our constitutional structure. We are steadily moving away from the separation of powers and toward an unconstitutional legal regime that places sole war-making authority in the hands of an increasingly imperial presidency.
.. There are widespread reports that the president is considering launching a “bloody nose” strike against North Korea — a strike designed to send the strongest possible message, short of all-out war — that its ICBM program has to end.
.. The discussions are apparently so serious that the administration pulled its nominee for ambassador to South Korea, Victor Cha, because he opposed the strike. He then immediately took to the pages of the Washington Post to express his opposition
.. We are not facing the necessity of immediate self-defense. Oh, and in both countries, military action carries with it risks of dangerous escalation. With Russian boots on the ground in Syria, miscalculation risks a great-power conflict. With immense North Korean forces clustered near the border of South Korea, miscalculation risks a truly terrible war.
.. New military action in Syria and new military action in North Korea represent textbook cases for congressional authorization.
.. So why did the administration feel that it had the legal authority to order its Syria strike?
Well, it turns out there’s a memo.
.. Prior to the Syria strike, the administration generated a classified document by an “interagency group of attorneys” that analyzed the “legal basis for potential military action.”
.. We cannot sustain and protect our constitutional structure if we delegate arguments against the unconstitutional abuse of presidential authority exclusively to members of whichever party is out of power.
.. it’s time for Senator Corker to insist on a public debate and congressional authorization before we launch any new military action against North Korea.
.. While the facts supporting the argument may well be legitimately classified, the legal analysis itself — which will turn on questions of constitutional, statutory, and international law — should be a matter of open inquiry.