Asked last week on 60 Minutes how many shooting wars the United States is in, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta took a moment to answer. He eventually said we are going after Al Qaeda in Pakistan and its “nodes” in Somalia, Yemen and North Africa. Somehow, he left out the indefinite war we have going in Afghanistan.
It’s no wonder that Panetta can’t keep track of the wars he’s supposed to manage. On top of Afghanistan and the drone campaigns, twelve thousand U.S. special-operations forces are distributed around dozens of countries, increasingly outside declared war zones, where they train foreign militaries, collect intelligence and occasionally launch lethal raids. As just reported in the Washington Post , some of these forces are now operating a dozen bases across Northern Africa, where their activities include overseeing contractors flying surveillance aircraft. Despite the Obama administration’s claims of great progress in fighting Al Qaeda, the global shadow war shows no signs of abating.
The official rationale for using force across the world is that Al Qaeda is global. But that’s true only thanks to a capacious definition of Al Qaeda that imposes a sense of false unity of disparate groups. The always-overrated remnant of the organization that sponsored the 9/11 attacks barely exists anymore, even in Pakistan. Our counterterrorism efforts are directed mostly against others: terrorists that take up Al Qaeda’s name and desire to kill Westerners but have limited links to the real McCoy, as in Yemen and North Africa, and insurgents friendly to jihadists but mostly consumed by local disputes, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Shabaab in Somalia and Al Qaeda’s Islamist allies in southern Yemen. Like the phony communist monolith in the Cold War, the myth of a unified, global “Al Qaeda” makes actions against vaguely linked entities—many with no obvious interest in the United States—seem a coherent campaign against globe trotting menace bent on our destruction.
The real reason we are fighting so much these days is that war is too easy . International and domestic restraints on the use of U.S. military power are few. And unrestrained power tends to be exercised. Presidents can use it whimsically, at least until they do something costly that creates a backlash and wakes up public opposition. Drones and special-operations forces made this problem worse.
Most of the world is what the military calls a permissive environment, especially since the end of the Cold War. Most places lack forces capable of keeping our military out. Many potential allies invite it. The risks traditionally associated with war—invasion, mass death, etc.—are now alien to Americans. Since the draft ended, the consequences of even bad wars for most of us are minor: unsettling media stories and mildly higher taxes deferred by deficits. That’s why, as Nuno Monteiro argues, the U.S. military was already quite busy in the 1990s despite the absence of real enemies.
Because war is so cheap, the public has little reason to worry much about it . That leaves elected representatives without any electoral incentive to restrain presidential war powers. No surprise then that the imperial presidency grew as American power did. Technology gains and secrecy exacerbate the problem. Even more than strategic bombing from high altitude, which already prevented U.S. casualties, drones cheapen warfare. Covert raids are riskier, of course, but secrecy limits public appreciation of those risks.
The president and his advisors assure us that they use these forces only after solemn debate and nights spent ( badly) reading just war theory. But a White House that debates the use of force only with itself short-circuits the democratic process. That is not just a constitutional problem but a practical one. Broad debate among competing powers generally produces better decisions than narrower, unilateral ones. That is why is it is naive to suggest, as John Fabian Witt did last week in a New York Times op-ed, that the executive branch is developing sensible legal institutions to manage the gray area between war and peace occupied by drone strikes. What’s needed are checks and balances. That means Congress needs to use its war powers.
First, Congress should rewrite the 2001 Authorization of Military Force, which has morphed into a legal rationale for doing whatever presidents want in the name of counterterrorism. That bill authorized force against the organizers of the September 11 attacks and those who aided them, which seemed to mean Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and maybe Pakistan. The new law should state that acts of war, including drone strikes, in other places require a new authorization of force. If Congress is for bombing stuff in Yemen and Somalia, it should debate those missions. Second, Congress should reform the convoluted laws governing the deployment of special operations forces, making their use more onerous and transparent. Those forces should engage in covert action only after a presidential finding, as with the CIA. Third, Congress should require that taxes or offsets fund wars. That would increase debate about their worth.