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Mattis wants open-ended wars — with no accountability

Conservative Review

We’ve been fighting open-ended and undeclared wars for 16 years. The worst thing is that they are not even wars, but rather refereeing Islamic civil wars, engaging in social work, and implementing urban renewal projects. Yet, rather than tightening our focus to comport with our current national interests, which are very different from the days immediately after 9/11, Mattis and Tillerson want to continue the status quo.  Meanwhile, we continue to bring their boots to our ground and import hundreds of thousands of migrants from these very same countries.

The status quo has cost us trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, yet we have nothing to show for it but a stronger Iran, stronger Sunni insurgency, and hundreds of thousands more Islamic refugees we’ve taken in as a result of these wars. We’ve placed our boots on their ground and placed their boots on our ground — all under the promise of protecting the homeland!

It’s time for a focused debate on strategic interests

I’m a hawk who relishes the prospect of killing those who would harm our strategic interests. And that is exactly why I believe it’s high time for Congress to get back on the playing field, reinvigorate constitutional powers to declare war, and finally provide some direction to the aimless social work and third-world urban renewal projects in which we’ve mired our military for the past 16 years. It’s time for Congress to engage in a complete operational audit to rein in and better direct the focus of these rudderless wars in dozens of countries that gratuitously place our troops at risk indefinitely with no meaningful outcome.

Yesterday, at a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis suggested that even the robust proposal of an AUMF (authorization of use of military force) from the committee members wasn’t good enough. The bipartisan group of senators are seeking to update the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs and explicitly grant a five-year authorization to go after the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Any other groups would require new approval, and action taken against these groups in other countries will require notification of Congress.

This proposal by itself, in my view, is already too open-ended because we have no understanding of who we are fighting and on behalf of whom we are holding ground in most of those countries. Just look at what we’ve done in Iraq — empowering Shiite militias and Iran to crush the Kurds, our only stable ally. What exactly does “fighting ISIS” mean in the context of multi-fronted civil wars in countries that no longer exist? And what does “fighting the Taliban” mean after 16 years of trying everything but still incurring the worst results, according to the latest inspector-general report? We won’t find out those answers unless we force a debate.

Yet Mattis and Tillerson want more. Mattis said there should be no time or geographical constraints, and Tillerson suggested that Congress should serve as a mere “feedback loop.”

Mattis and Tillerson seem to think that continuing the failed policies of the past 16 years, without congressional buy-in, without conducting a risk vs. return and cost-benefit analysis, and while deviating from the Constitution, is being tough on terror. They are conflating more endless involvement with being tougher on jihad or other threats that directly affect our homeland. In reality, we must conserve our forces for the true existential threats, such as Iran and North Korea, and focus on homeland security, deterrent, and use of soft power against Turkey, Qatar and other funders of Jihad.

Here’s the reality. There are roughly 50 Muslim countries in the world. All of them will have a permanent presence of organized groups that call themselves “Al Qaeda,” ISIS,” or new names we’ve never heard of but undoubtedly will in the coming years. At some point, it’s not worth getting sucked into any theater where some group is shaking their fists at us from a tent in a desert. This is especially true given that in most of these theaters, there are multiple enemies fighting each other and no way to gain and hold ground long-term on behalf of a government that is stable, effective, and pro-American.

Our military does well when we deter a regime or an enemy entity with overwhelming power, leave them to sort out their problems, and get the heck out so we can conserve our deterrent for the next threat. We fail miserably when we engage in protracted refereeing of Islamic civil wars, for powers that will never make us a return on our investments. This is how all our painful endeavors have wound up serving as a windfall for our enemies, most notably Iran.

But instead of learning the mistakes of Iraq, with the glaring images of Iranian-backed troops killing Kurds with our own weapons, our political and military leaders are on to the next theater. And in Syria, the commanding generals don’t even know how many troops we have. Afghanistan is an utter disaster, yet nobody wants to answer important questions:

It’s time to follow the Constitution

This is where we must return to the Constitution and congressional control over initiating offensive actions. Getting congressional authorization for a war is not just the constitutional thing to do, it is strategically smart. It focuses our attention and provides an opportunity for the people through their elected representatives to ask the critical questions: What is the strategic threat and what are our interests? Who are we fighting? Who’s holding the ground? For how long? How it is sustainable? Likely costs? Likely benefits? It gets the confidence of the public behind the action, an imperative ingredient for success. Then, once Congress authorizes the action, the commander-in-chief controls the military and directs the strategy.

This is why the delegates at the Constitutional Convention specifically changed Article I powers from “make” war to “declare” war. They wanted the president to direct the implementation of the war, but clearly, as Madison said, we must abide by the “fundamental doctrine of the Constitution that the power to declare war is fully and exclusively vested in the legislature.”

Clearly, at the time of our Founding, any offensive action taken on foreign soil would have required a declaration of war. However, since WWII, primarily due to the changing logistics of warfare and technology and the nature of threats, we haven’t abided by that doctrine. One can make a strong case for the need to strike swiftly in short-term operations or air strikes when necessary, but it is simply indefensible to suggest that we can insert our troops on the ground indefinitely for years in untenable situations without any congressional buy-in. At least that latter dynamic must come to an end; otherwise our Constitution will become a mockery and our chances for success in foreign operations will be next to zero. It’s time to make our wars properly focused.

To that end, we should propose an AUMF that authorizes any offensive actions around the globe where boots are on the ground for less than 30 days. In this respect, it is even more open-ended than what the Senate committee is proposing. This will grant the president the flexibility to immediately respond to or preempt any threat he deems imminent. However, if we need to keep troops on the ground for longer than 30 days, by definition, this is a can of worms that requires national buy-in and a serious debate over the nature of the threat, an assessment of whether the investment is worthwhile, and an understanding of the players in the theater. A provision can be inserted that would exempt clandestine operations lasting longer than 30 days from a public debate and route the authorization process instead to a closed vote from the committee. This is the only way to finally inject some oversight and forward thinking into endless involvement in Islamic civil wars.

Proponents of the status quo like to wrap themselves up in the flag and accuse those who want change of pulling the rug out from under the troops. The reality is that continuing the status quo ensures their mission fails the minute they step foot on foreign territory. For how can a mission succeed if we can’t even define it?

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