September 30, 2014– Too long away from the keyboard and pandemonium breaks out. There’s items to spotlight in the surveillance scandal, the ongoing saga of the CIA, and plenty more. But I can’t do it all at once. So, for today, let’s focus on Syria and ISIS–or ISIL, or whatever you want to call it. For a long time this was a challenge lurking in the shadows, imprecise in the false light of dawn. Suddenly a lot more is becoming known, not just about the jihadi group but regarding classic issues of waging war.
President Obama’s central dilemma at the moment is pursuing a conflict against ISIL, which is carving a caliphate out of Syria and Iraq, without favoring the leader of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, of whom Obama has already expressed himself as needing replacement. You read it here first (“Obama’s Trainwreck,” August 8, 2014)–Obama could not carry out sustained actions in Iraq without jumping into Syria, and he couldn’t do that without helping Assad. Now we’re deep in the Deep Muddy. Mr. Obama’s solution is to recruit a coalition of allies for the ISIL action. We’ll see how that fares.
As expected, the new round of U.S. military action has revived old arguments about war powers. The White House, as presidents seem invariably to do, has invoked the president’s powers as leader of the armed forces, along with the hoary old Iraq war congressional resolution, as giving him the legal authority to proceed. This is a tenuous position and will weaken quickly the more the U.S. undertakes direct actions in Syria (not covered in any of the old authorizations). Congress may already have given away the store by passing a resolution asking the administration to train Syrian resistance fighters, which can be taken as a tacit recognition of the state of belligerence. In any case, a key waypoint will come up in mid-November. At that time, under the War Powers Act, the president will be required to report to Congress on his use of force and the issues will be squarely posed.
Not so expected, military action is either drawing in ambitious U.S. commanders or beginning to impinge on forces available. The most recent news is that the administration has ordered a 500-man contingent of the 1st Infantry Division into Iraq. This is significant for two reasons. One, previously all the troop detachments have been from Special Operations Forces or the U.S. Marines. The new move will be the first call upon the regular troop rotation. This could signify that the armed services are lining up to get slices of the pie, as they have in previous long wars. Second, soldiers of that unit have previously been earmarked for service in Africa with the U.S. Africa Command, again primarily reliant on Special Forces and Marines. This could mean that the 1st Division is now regarded as especially suited to working alongside the shadow warriors, but it might also indicate that U.S. capabilities at the margin have been exhausted–with special forces doing everything they can regular troops are now required.
Meanwhile, the first dollar figures are now in. The think tank Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington calculates the cost of U.S. operations already carried out is nearing the billion-dollar mark, that at current rates the ISIL war may soak $2.4 to 3.8 billion out of U.S. budgets, and if the effort is increased, somewhere between $4.2 and 6.8 billion, exclusive of the cost in casualties or the effects of operating tempos on equipment. Since, to date, acknowledged U.S. military actions include only 273 “airstrikes” (this word is being used ambiguously, and I infer it refers to the release of a single rocket or bomb) and 47 Navy cruise missile strikes, the reader can get an idea of just how expensive it is to mount a single attack.
All this for a jihadi group that largely ignored the U.S. until recently. Indeed, the lesson for ISIL in all this is “kill an American on TV and you’re toast.” Enemies who seek ways to get the United States to malcommit forces to secondary fronts will take notice. Hysteria bred in the U.S. by the constant propaganda on the supposed terrorist threat makes that possible. American leaders should themselves wake up to the way their options are being narrowed by the drumbeat of frightening the public. Meanwhile the gathering war is much too important to be left to some vague legal justification. There needs to be a real war powers debate.