The Skeptics

Declaring War on "Islamist Extremism" Is Nonsense

It is news to no one that Congress is filled with cowards.

The Constitution places the power to declare war with the legislative branch. This does not mean simply taking note that the president has bombed or invaded another nation. Congress decides whether there will be a war to fight. Constitutional Convention delegate James Wilson explained: “It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power of declaring war is in the legislature at large.”

In recent decades, however, members of Congress have preferred to leave the hard decisions to the president. If the war went well, they applauded. If not, they criticized. This constitutional abdication has allowed unilateral warmaking, and presidents have been only too happy to oblige.

The only contrary example in recent years was when President Barack Obama tossed the issue of Syria’s use of chemical weapons to Congress. Americans overwhelmingly told their lawmakers to reject military involvement in yet another bitter Middle Eastern conflict. Republican hawks were overwhelmed by their own followers.

Yet the president has relied on the outdated authorization passed after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to validate his multiple air and drone campaigns, as well as deployment of trainers, advisers and special operations forces. Obama almost certainly does not believe that the old AUMF (Authorization of Use of Military Force), directed against those who plotted the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, has any relevance in today’s world. But he may fear that Congress would make a bad situation worse.

If H.J. Res. 84, “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Islamist Extremism”, is any indication, Obama would be right in that assumption. Sponsored by Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) and cosponsored by Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) and Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), the bill creates a long list of target “organizations that support Islamist extremism”, many of which have done nothing against America. It is a strikingly foolish piece of legislation.

First of all, a country normally declares war against entities, not philosophies. Usually the enemy is another nation. In today’s world, that might be applied to a group. But war involves destroying states, dismantling organizations and killing people. It does not entail criticizing ideologies or theologies. What matters is not whether a group is Islamist, but whether it endangers America.

Secondly, the threat to America and other nations is violent extremism, not extremism itself. It doesn’t particularly matter if people have kooky ideas if they do not kill, maim, kidnap, torture and otherwise harm others. One best avoids rather than executes them. Had Adolf Hitler remained a deranged street artist in Vienna, the United States would have had no cause to target him despite his hideous views. War became necessary when Hitler became Germany’s chancellor and put armored divisions, and more, in support of his opinions.

Lastly, war should be reserved for responding to threats to America, not cleaning up messes in other nations’ neighborhoods. During World War II, Washington declared war on Japan and Germany, then later on Italy, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. All were fighting against America or its allies; Congress did not pass a resolution against fascism. Spain chose not to enter the conflict, despite dictator Francisco Franco having received support from Germany and Italy during its civil war. The Franco regime might have been evil, but it posed no security threat to America. Other governments might have been considered fascist, but Washington had no cause to attack them.

Yet Representatives Perry, Salmon and Lummis came up with numerous new enemies, along with the kitchen sink: “the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Shabab, Boko Haram, Al Nusra Front, the Haqqani Network, the Taliban, Houthis, Korasan Group, Hamas, Hezbollah and any substantial supporters, associated forces or closely related successor entities to any of such organizations.”

Why stop there? Surely there are a few more insurgents, dissidents or factions that could be tossed onto the list. Why not Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines? They’ve kidnapped Americans and the United States has sent in military personnel to train the Filipino military. China assures the world that the Muslim Uighurs are terrorists, so why not add them? What about the Pakistani Taliban, which differs from the forces operating in Afghanistan? At Islamabad’s behest, the United States already has used drones against the former. Certainly Russia’s Chechens, who without question have committed atrocities against civilians, belong on the list. There undoubtedly are more.

The proposed choice of enemies well illustrates the problem of U.S. foreign policy. ISIS should be on the list because it is the current focus of military action in the Middle East. But it did not turn to terrorism against America or Europe until Washington and its allies took over the fight against the caliphate. Terrorism has become ISIS’s only effective weapon of retaliation. Had Washington left the battle to those in the region threatened by the Islamic State—essentially everyone, from Turkey to Iraq to Egypt to Saudi Arabia—the group likely would be devoting its terrorist energies elsewhere.