As Congress returns for a lame-duck session that promises to be equal parts theatrical and unproductive, President Obama is making a promise of his own: to pursue a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) legitimizing action against ISIS.
Notwithstanding the division and skepticism of the current political moment, the AUMF represents a critical opportunity to unify Americans around an important policy goal: grounding an unmoored foreign policy while reestablishing a public stake in matters of war and peace. Veterans Day is the perfect moment to begin a new conversation about how we decide upon and underwrite the use of force.
Since September 11th, 2001, our nation has made a series of questionable decisions about the best way to secure itself. The net result has been more foreign conflict. One half of one percent of the public has stepped forward to carry out these questionable decisions with valor, fidelity, and a willingness to give their all. This tiny band has protected an entire people, and been ground down in the process, even if they will never admit it. As we mark a day meant to honor them, it is time to admit we owe them more than a rubber stamp of war approval – one likely to sidestep meaningful checks against the serial abuse of citizens most committed to the ideal of peace through security.
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As others have argued, a new AUMF should include a number of key features. It should constrain military action within a clear strategy to prevent mission creep. It should also establish limits of scope and geography, requiring the President to seek Congressional approval before broadening the conflict.
Unlike its predecessors, this new AUMF should also have an expiration date. While some worry about the strategic signal of assigning a shelf life, this anxiety is overblown, and more than offset by its potential benefits. Giving the world’s toughest fighting force eighteen months with a clear mission and ample resources is a far more dependable recipe for victory than sending it into an indefinite and ill-defined campaign waged upon constantly shifting political sands. This lesson is clearly observable over the past dozen years of war, as the absence of clock pressure has sapped mission clarity, bogging forces down in one open-ended improvisation after another in Iraq and Afghanistan. Time limits also give voice to the traditional American view that anything we can’t get done in a decent amount of time probably isn’t for us to be doing in the first place unless it involves vital interests.
Strategic clarity, limited scope, and defined duration are common elements in recent war authorization proposals. But an AUMF enacted on the heels of thirteen years of unprofitable adventurism in a region crawling with undiscovered hazards should go further in reflecting the mood of the nation and the lessons of its recent trials. On this theory, it should include two important innovations.
First, the President should be precluded from establishing new bases in the region without first notifying Congress. Basing is an insidious source of unplanned growth in our obligations abroad, and can expand executive authority in ways Americans and their representatives didn’t sign up for and don’t understand. When an American flag is hoisted to mark a foreign base, it becomes a national interest that the President must protect. This is the prime mechanism by which our regional footprints grow, giving adversaries new sources of recruitment while expanding our own built-in authority for the use of force. This elasticity must be lucidly deliberated rather than accepted as a rote feature of foreign policy.
Second, and most critically, the ISIS AUMF must include a provision that pays for itself by imposing a tax on the public. That this has become a radical notion in modern discussion reflects an alarming loss of perspective that must be restored if we’re to avoid warring ourselves into eventual collapse.
When Americans don’t feel the pain of war, they become too sanguine (or even eager) about supporting it. This misaligns incentives in favor of the ever-increasing use of military force without a spirited debate or sober planning about its costs. The result is a gradual and dangerous erosion of an important check on war-making power. Our system assumes the people will check the President, and that elected leaders will facilitate the role of the people by explaining costs, risks, and benefits of a war proposal. When this doesn’t happen, we should suspect the system is no longer making valid decisions. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this pattern has seized matters of American war and peace since the middle of the last century, particularly since the end of the Cold War.
But while Americans haven’t been asked to purchase war bonds, pay higher taxes, ration fuel, or give their sons and daughters to conscription to support the nation’s foreign policy, the costs of war are most assuredly being borne. They’re being absorbed almost completely by the tiny sliver of the population willing to brave war’s dangers and accept its built-in anguish as part of life’s responsibilities.
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When history gazes back on the American decade just past, it will render a harsh moral judgment. We have avoided shared sacrifice in our common defense, instead exposing our most selfless citizens to unprecedented danger and privation for too little gain at an unfairly staggering cost. We have not taken good enough care of returning veterans because we did not adequately think or plan before undertaking the most complex and dangerous of human endeavors. These are not the actions of a virtuous people. We can and must do better.
For both our strategic footing and our national conscience, we must reverse the unfolding corrosion of the crucial bond between citizen, soldier, and state. The best way to do that, and to honor those who have given more than we ought ever to have asked, is to reaffirm a careful process for war authorization—one that responsibly constrains us while compelling participation by all who will benefit from the sacrifice that most assuredly lies ahead.