The Senate just voted 55 to 45 to approve a War Powers Resolution requiring that President Trump seek congressional authorization before taking any further military action against Iran. I guess this is marginally better than doing absolutely nothing, but not by much, and in some ways, it’s a step backwards.*
A refresher: Under Donald Trump, the United States unilaterally exited the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement it had signed with Iran in 2015. The agreement makes no provision for the unilateral withdrawal, and Iran was in any case in compliance with the agreement. So the United States unilaterally broke the agreement.
Despite that, the Trump Administration then unilaterally imposed sanctions on Iran, provoking retaliation by Iran in the process. Having done so, Trump then decided to assassinate Iran’s General Qasim Suleimani in a further act of “retaliation,” on the supposed grounds that Suleimani was the #1 terrorist in the world, and was planning “imminent” attacks on American facilities. No evidence was ever offered for either claim. In retaliation for that, Iran launched a volley of missiles against bases in Iraq housing American troops. As far as the American people are concerned, that’s where matters came to an end. They started it; we won. (A useful summary.)
Though Iran’s missile strike was widely viewed in the United States as a merely pro forma exercise–a slap dash response motivated by overall acquiescence to America’s military might–it might more profitably be viewed as a strategic adjustment on Iran’s part. Each nation has strategic strengths and weaknesses. Each seeks to fight on its own terms. The United States has the capacity to assassinate Iranian generals, and command airspace. The Iranians have the advantage on the ground. So Iran has, for the moment, forsworn a full retaliation in order to avoid the kind of frontal war that the US seems to want. That doesn’t preclude fighting the kind of rearguard action it wants.
Iran’s broader strategic objective is to drive US forces from the region, an objective it can (and has, and very likely will continue to) bring about by attacks by its proxies on the ground, like Hezbollah et al. Hezbollah drove the mighty Israelis out of Lebanon in 2006. Driving the Americans out of Iraq is not exactly the same thing, but could in principle be done. Famously, David did it to Goliath. (I know the Israelis like to think of themselves as the David in any altercation, but Americans can hardly uphold that ridiculous pretense.)
The basic strategic (and moral) decision the United States has to make is whether to stay in Iraq and fight Iran’s proxy forces, or pre-empt the threat posed by those forces by leaving Iraq unilaterally. There’s no way around this decision, and no way of splitting the difference between the two options. Either we stay, or we leave. We can’t do both, but we must choose one. There are good moral and strategic reasons for leaving. Empty rhetoric aside (much of it embedded within the “findings” of the War Powers Resolution itself), I haven’t encountered and can’t think of any good reasons for staying.
Viewed from this wider moral-strategic perspective, the War Powers Resolution is almost entirely a waste of ink and paper–a perfect exemplification of the old saw about not missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The Resolution starts with a Section of irrelevant and factually dubious “findings” that do an end-run around every fundamental moral and strategic fact we actually face. It then explicitly lays the groundwork for our staying in Iraq. It says nothing about our ever leaving Iraq. It ensures that troops have the authorization to defend themselves (and the United States itself) against “imminent attack,” but doesn’t define that phrase, and doesn’t acknowledge its notorious elasticity.
After essentially declaring Iran our sworn enemy and a sponsor of terrorist threats around the world, the Resolution then prohibits Trump from using “military force against Iran”…or well, prohibits him from doing so unless he gets Congressional authorization. The question then becomes how much of a constraint this really is.
It’s not much of one. The War Powers Resolution rests on a basic, but widespread falsehood: it assumes that we are not yet at war with Iran, but could be at war if the president leads us into such a war. It then proceeds as though Congress is what stands between us and such a terrible, unthinkable eventuality, and as though the Resolution itself is the constraint that will save us from it. To think this way is to gaslight oneself in the service of the people who got us into the war we’re already in.
News flash: we’re already at war with Iran. Having withdrawn from the JCPOA, Trump re-imposed all of the sanctions that Congress itself had previously imposed on Iran. Sanctions are straightforwardly a military action–a fact that Americans would better understand if they were on the receiving end**– and the Resolution says nothing in condemnation of them. It simply re-affirms the United States’s desire to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability. It proceeds, in short, as though sanctions were a basically laudable fact of life, and as though enforcing them was not a use of military force against Iran. But every assumption here is wrong, and every omission is a fatal defect.
Beyond this, the assassination of Suleimani was an act of war, and was regarded that way by the Iranians. That the Revolutionary Guards haven’t yet invaded Times Square doesn’t change that. Nor do the unpleasant facts go away because the Americans don’t regard the assassination as an act of war. You can’t wish a war away because you didn’t declare it or don’t acknowledge it. It was Germany and Italy that declared war against us in 1941, not the other way around–and yet that fact put us at war with them. FDR couldn’t have gotten us out of the war by stomping his feet on the ground and holding his breath. Like it or not, the Iranians will attack us through their proxies in their own way, at their own pace. They aren’t fighting our war, much less the war that the median TV watcher is anticipating. They’re fighting their own war on their own timeline and by their own strategy. We’ll only know what that means after the deed is done.***
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the Resolution seems to trade opportunistically on an ambiguity in the phrase “war with Iran.” Does “war with Iran” include a war outside of Iran’s physical borders, with Iranian proxies? The Resolution doesn’t say. Strictly speaking, then, the Resolution is consistent with giving the President authority to invade Lebanon. It’s perfectly consistent with giving him authority to assassinate Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It also obviously fails (if that’s the word) to deal with the fact that any fighting we do with Iran is likely to take place in Iraq, not Iran. Since the Resolution says nothing about a troop withdrawal from Iraq, and ratifies the use of force in self-defense, it basically underwrites indefinite war with Iran, as long as it takes place in Iraq or Syria.
Put it this way: suppose that a spectacular, large-scale attack on US troops occurs sometime this year. (I often wonder whether the Trump Administration is hoping for or trying to provoke one.) What exactly is Congress going to do then? And what value will its War Powers Resolution have in that context?
If (or when) that happens, the US will be under pressure to respond militarily. At first, the response will take a purely “defensive” form. But the line between offense and defense is as difficult to draw on a battlefield as it is in a fist-fight.**** So “defensive” force will blur into offense–into “taking the fight to the enemy.” It’s obviously senseless to imagine that Congress will invoke the War Powers Resolution to prevent US military personnel from exercising a clear-cut right of self-defense against attacks by Iranian proxy forces, “imminent” or not. But it’s almost equally senseless to imagine that, having warded off an “imminent” attack or two by Hezbollah et al, the US military will simply sit there and wait for the next “imminent” attack to happen.
To belabor the obvious: the word “imminent” has no militarily useful meaning. Reports of imminent attack are even in the best case retrospective anyway, and most of them are probably fudges or lies. The Secretary of State now describes an attack as “imminent”if he can, retrospectively, truly assert that there was a time such that it was imminent. In other words, any attack that takes place within space and time qualifies. So appeal to the “imminence” criterion is a red herring and a fifth wheel at the same time: a distraction that does no useful work. But even if it did, for every “imminent attack” US troops suffer, the generals will demand to go on the offensive. What then?
At that point, the fundamental senselessness of the War Powers Resolution will become apparent even to the people who passed it. At that point (as at this point), either the US military is to stay and fight in Iraq, or withdraw. But if it’s to stay and fight, then, taken literally, the War Powers Resolution is a hindrance to effective combat. The military can’t be expected to adhere to a set of arbitrary congressional dictates on how to fight a war against a guerrilla insurgency in a hostile country. What if it wants to take the fight to Iran? It knows, and Congress knows, that Congress lacks the expertise and discipline to conduct a war from afar. To imagine a war conducted by Congress is to imagine certain defeat. Since such a defeat would be attributed to the War Powers Resolution itself, Congress has a strong incentive, when the going gets rough, to abandon its “War Powers Resolution.” Its “resolve” will crumble exactly when it’s needed–after we’re attacked and the generals, “taken by surprise,” decide that they need to “take the fight to the enemy.”
At that point, the military will pretend that it had no choice: it couldn’t, after all, let our men and women in harm’s way be attacked with impunity by Hezbollah, could it? And so, withdrawal will become as pointless as it becomes after ejaculation. People unable to figure out that we have to withdraw from Iraq now will suddenly decide that we can’t possibly withdraw from Iraq after having been attacked. Why, that would show “weakness.” So they’ll decide to double down for another round of fighting. We wouldn’t want to tie our troops’ hands, would we? Isn’t that what we did in Vietnam? And Korea? And, well, Iraq and Afghanistan? And Libya? And Somalia? And Lebanon? And Nicaragua? And Angola? The desire to “re-live” the glorious victories of Iwo Jima and Grenada dies hard. If only Iran were an isolated island somewhere in the middle of the sea (but different from Cuba, obviously).
Having decided to double down, they’ll be glad to offload responsibility for waging war onto the Commander-in-Chief. And our Commander-in-Chief, though a complete stranger to the concept of responsibility, is familiar enough with the concept of winning petty victories, and of exercising unaccountable power, to accept a prize of this nature. So he’ll gladly take “back” the power that he had all along, deriding the War Powers Resolution as the paper tiger it was all along. And so, the system will have worked as designed: a fake attempt to restrain the President will give way to the necessities of the moment, which will require empowering him through yet more warfare.
I don’t want to be a complete asshole about this. The one good thing about the War Powers Resolution is that it puts Congress on record as claiming to want to restrain the President. From that perspective, we could in theory see it as a baby step in the right direction. And I’d truly like to see it that way. But in the absence of an actual desire to do what it takes to constrain our powers for war, it achieves the opposite of its supposed intention: it legitimizes war, then runs away from the responsibility of waging war, ceding that responsibility to the psychopath who’s likely to win the 2020 election.
To that end, a few ironies–aka hypocrisies–are worth highlighting here. It was the Democrats who, during impeachment proceedings, complained so bitterly about the Republicans’ desire to evade substantive issues by hiding behind nit-picky procedural matters. That’s exactly what they’re doing here. The same Democratic legislators who were (rightly) convinced that Trump’s Ukrainian “drug deal” merited impeachment on substantive grounds now seem to think that his war on Iran merits nothing more than an irrelevant procedural gesture. The same people who were willing to waste political capital on impeachment lack it for troop withdrawal.***** The same people quixotically willing to remove the President for withholding military aid to Ukraine now think it too much effort to demand that the President withdraw US troops from Iraq–a matter of much greater consequence that he’s promised for the last five years.
From this perspective, the War Powers Resolution is the exact opposite of what it claims to be: not a resolution limiting executive powers to wage war, but a public declaration of irresolution that ends up expanding it. I’m a nice enough guy to want to have more charitable thoughts about my Congressional representatives, but not enough of a sap to have them. So I share a bit of their irresolution. They don’t know what to think about troop withdrawal; I don’t know what to think about them. Perhaps we could, in a spirit of bipartisan comity and fraternity, come together and bridge our differences? If they can leverage the War Powers Resolution into a genuine troop withdrawal, I’ll be the first and the loudest to sing their praises.
But a bipartisan effort is just that: it takes two. We all have to do our part to reach out to the folks on the other side of the aisle. Put simply, the War Mongers have to give something up to the Party of Peace. How about just one less war? Just one? All we are asking is to give troop withdrawal a chance.
*I haven’t seen the text of the Senate version. Here’s the text of the apparently very similar House version. I rely throughout on my reading of the House version, and on the widely reported claim that the Senate version is fundamentally the same.
**Consider the suffering produced for farmers by the metaphorical “trade war.”I suspect that if more of Americans suffered as much as the worst-hit of these farmers, they’d grasp the meaning of “sanctions” more clearly than they tend to do. Anyone unclear about the relation between sanctions and warfare might want to consider why Japan attacked the United States in 1941, why Israel attacked Egypt in 1967, what was so dangerous about the American blockade of Cuba in 1962, or why it is that Gazans are willing to risk death at their “border” with Israel to call attention to the situation they’re currently in. And recall that 9/11 was retaliation for our sanctions policy against Iraq.
***A simultaneous cyberwar attack on Facebook, Twitter, and Medicare.gov, though strategically pointless, might get Americans’ attention. It’s what I would attack if I were an enemy of the United States, crashing everyone’s computer with a message reading, “Would you shut the fuck up for a second, and pay attention to the people you’re killing?”
****Anyone who’s actually been in a fist-fight will readily grasp this. Suppose someone hits you, and you hit him back squarely in the face. He reels for a moment. What do you do in that moment–flee or fight? You could do either, but have no guarantee of which course of action will work better. If you flee, he could chase you. If you stay, you might have avoided the fight by fleeing. If in this context, you choose to fight, there is both a sense in which the fighting is defensive and a sense in which it’s a case of taking the offensive even when it’s not motivated by vengeance. Separate point: while I don’t approve of vengeance as a motive, actually getting someone to refrain from indulging it under these circumstances is a near impossible task.
*****This is the sense in which Tulsi Gabbard’s decision to vote “present” on impeachment had something of a rational basis.