Is Obama Misleading the World to War?
September 25, 2014
Trevor Timm / The Guardian & Dan Roberts / The Guardian
Want to decipher what the US military is really doing in Iraq and Syria, or figure out whether its regional war against the Islamic State (ISIS) is legal? Good luck. The Obama administration's secret efforts to redefine the ordinary meaning of key legal terms and phrases has made that near-impossible. When it comes to military strikes against ISIS in Syria, his administration's strategy relies on what the meaning of 'is' is.
Is Obama Misleading the World to War? Depends How You Define 'Misleading'
Trevor Timm / The Guardian
September 24, 2014) -- Want to decipher what the US military is really doing in Iraq and Syria, or figure out whether its regional war against the Islamic State (ISIS) is legal? Good luck. The Obama administration's secret efforts to redefine the ordinary meaning of key legal terms and phrases has made that near impossible.
For instance, in his Tuesday statement that US airstrikes that have expanded into Syria, Obama studiously avoided any discussion about his domestic legal authority to conduct these strikes. That dirty work was apparently left up to anonymous White House officials, who told the New York Times's Charlie Savage that both the Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) from 2001 (meant for al-Qaida) and the 2002 war resolution (meant for Saddam Hussein's Iraq) gave the government the authority to strike ISIS in Syria.
In other words: the legal authority provided to the White House to strike al-Qaida and invade Iraq more than a dozen years ago now means that the US can wage war against a terrorist organization that's decidedly not al-Qaida, in a country that is definitely not Iraq.
It's been weeks since initial air strikes began, and the administration has still refused to release a detailed written legal rationale explaining how, exactly, that works.
Then on Tuesday, Buzzfeed's Evan McMorris-Santoro reported that the Pentagon is "confident" that no civilians were killed in any of the initial airstrikes in Syria, despite a credible report to the contrary. But we have no idea what that actually means either. The White House previously embraced a re-definition of "civilian" so it could easily deny its drone strikes were killing anyone than "militants" in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere, according to a New York Times report in 2012:
It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.
So any casualties, if they're men, might well be tallied as "militants" even if the actual dead people were not.
(When Obama said that the war against ISIS would be based on "the Yemen model" in his address to Congress two weeks ago, is this what he meant?)
In addition to conducting airstrikes against ISIS is Syria on Tuesday, the Obama administration also announced it had also targeted the "Khorasan Group", a separate al-Qaida-linked terrorist organization. They justified it by claiming that the group was plotting an "imminent" attack on the US. Before last week, hardly anyone had heard of the Khorasan Group (in fact, even their name was classified), so it's difficult to judge from public information just how threatening their alleged plot really was. But when you add in the administration's definition of "imminent," it becomes impossible.
Take, for example, this definition from a Justice Department white paper, which was leaked last year, intended to justify the killing of Americans overseas:
[A]n "imminent" threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons will take place in the immediate future.
To translate: "imminent" can mean a lot of things . . . including "not imminent".
Finally, there's the prospect of ground troops in Iraq or Syria -- or, as the White House would like the public to believe, the idea that there is no prospect for ground troops in Iraq or Syria. By any layman's definition, there are already combat troops on the ground in Iraq.
As the New York Times's Mark Landler detailed over the weekend, White House has "an extremely narrow definition of combat . . . a definition rejected by virtually every military expert." According to the Obama administration, the 1600 "military advisers" that have steadily been flowing in Iraq fall outside this definition, despite the fact that "military advisers" can be: embedded with Iraqi troops; carry weapons; fire their weapons if fired upon; and call in airstrikes. In the bizarro dictionary of war employed by this White House, none of that qualifies as "combat".
So when you hear the words "imminent attack", "civilians", militants" or "ground troops" from now on, be careful: if the government says they're not misleading you, it might only be because they've secretly changed the definition of "misleading".
US Ties Itself in Legal Knots
To Cover Shifting Rationale for Syria Strikes
Dan Roberts / The Guardian
WASHINGTON (September 23, 2014) -- US government lawyers have invoked Iraq's right to self-defence and the weakness of the Assad regime as twin justifications for US bombing in Syria, in a feat of legal acrobatics that may reopen questions over its right to intervene in the bitter civil war.
In a letter to the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, released near 24 hours after attacks began, US ambassador Samantha Power argued that the threat to Iraq from Islamic State, known as ISIS or ISIL, gave the US and its allies in the region an automatic right to attack on its behalf.
"Iraq has made clear that it is facing a serious threat of continuing attacks from ISIL coming out of safe havens in Syria," Power wrote.
"The government of Iraq has asked that the United States lead international efforts to strike ISIL sites and military strongholds in Syria in order to end the continuing attacks on Iraq, to protect Iraqi citizens and ultimately to enable and arm Iraqi forces to perform their task of regaining control of the Iraqi borders."
The brief letter did not mention the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which rested on erroneous claims of weapons of mass destruction and arguably contributed to its current instability, but stresses instead the country's right to self-defence in the face of this new threat.
"The United States has initiated necessary and proportionate military actions in Syria in order to eliminate the ongoing ISIL threat to Iraq, including by protecting Iraqi citizens from further attacks and by enabling Iraqi forces to regain control of Iraq's borders," it said.
The US also argued that there was legal right to pursue ISIS inside Syria due to the weakness of that country's government -- a regime the US has been actively urging be undermined by rebel groups for much of the past two years.
"States must be able to defend themselves, in accordance with the inherent right on individual and collective self-defence, as reflected in article 51 of the UN Charter, when, as is the case here, the government of the state where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory for such attacks," Power wrote.
The legal circumlocutions to avoid requesting a UN security council resolution match similar efforts to avoid requesting specific legal authority from Congress.
Fearing that US politicians up for re-election in November may balk at voting for a third military attack on Iraq and being sucked into a Syrian quagmire, the White House has avoided seeking a fresh authorisation of the use of military force, preferring to rely on early authorisations against al-Qaida granted after the 11 September 2001 attacks.
But this means arguing that ISIS is equivalent to al-Qaida, even though the groups are split -- logic that several critics in Congress, such as Virginia senator Tim Kaine, have argued is flawed and requires a fresh authorisation to fix.
Power reached for similar arguments in her letter to the UN, arguing that Tuesday's separate attack on Khorasan rebels in Syria was also an act of self defence by the US due to the group's closeness to al-Qaida.
"The United States has initiated military actions in Syria against al-Qaida elements in Syria known as the Khorosan Group to address terrorist threats that they pose to the United States and our partners and allies," she wrote.
"ISIL and other terrorist groups in Syria are a threat not only to Iraq but also to many other countries, including the United States and our partners in the region and beyond," Power's letter said.
Recent testimony by US intelligence and homeland security officials in Washington has acknowledged that Syrian groups such as ISIS are not known to be planning any direct attacks on the US.
Earlier justifications for attacking ISIS in Iraq rested instead on the argument that the US needed to defend its personnel in the country, even though many had been moved to the north of the country specifically to tackle the group.
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