Truth #1: “We have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland.” This is an extremely important admission to understand. If there is no specific plot against America then America must by definition be acting pre-emptively to wage war on the organization known as the “Islamic State.” Whether you think that is a good thing or a bad thing, it is by definition, the truth.
Truth #2: “ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria and the broader Middle East.” This is undoubtedly true. If American politicians wanted to combat such a threat, it would make sense to cooperate with the governments of both Iraq and Syria. The fact that the United States has thus far absolutely refused to cooperate with the government of Syria should make you search for underlying motivations for American intervention that are perhaps less obvious.
Truth #3: “Last month I ordered our [the American] military to take targeted action [to drop bombs] against ISIL to stop its advances. Since then we’ve conducted over 150 successful airstrikes on Iraq.” This is undoubtedly true. The questions Americans should ask themselves are both procedural and moral. First, what procedures are used to authorize such action? Second, are there any transparent principles that unilaterally apply when deciding to exercise the use of violent force? Third, is the use of violent force morally justified in these circumstances?
A. Domestic procedural considerations: The bombing campaign against the Islamic State was “justified” according to the War Powers Resolution of 1973. This horrible piece of legislation states that the President has 90 days to unilaterally wage war on whomever he wants in the entire world at his own discretion so long as he notifies Congress within 60 days what he is up to, and absent further authorization, stops waging war on his own after 90 days. This means that there are essentially zero procedures in the American government to authorize war – it is always authorized. Congress would have to repeal the War Powers Resolution to necessitate any kind of debate.
B. International procedural considerations: Many times since WWII legal authority for waging war has been feigned through “United Nations resolutions” and/or “international consensus.” This was the case in Libya where a UN resolution was put forward in 2011 to state that force was permissible solely to prevent genocide of innocent Libyan civilians. This of course does not trump American law – which was simply ignored.
C. Universally applicable principles: The most important principle to consider when attempting to ascertain the moral legitimacy of violence is the non-aggression principle – namely that the use of violent force is only morally justified in self-defense. What constitutes legitimate self-defense will vary from person to person which is exactly why the people should decide themselves when they want to go to war and when they don’t. That the President or even Congress should decide when to go to war violates the non-aggression principle because it forces those people who believe the violence to be immoral to participate in it either directly (those military members who disagree) or indirectly (through taxation and treasury monetization). The truth is that the people themselves – individuals – should decide when they want to individually and in voluntary cooperation with others (collectively) use violence in defense of themselves and/or others. Bureaucrats, whether elected or not, should have nothing to do with it.
D. Is violent force justified: Is the situation in Iraq and Syria self-defense? Based on truth #1 above, and from the perspective of America, it is not. Does it, however, constitute the legitimate defense of others? This is very possible. The problem is that government action necessarily violates the beliefs of some in order to act in accordance with the wishes of others. In my view those individuals who are willing to fight in defense of innocents in Iraq and Syria should do so. Put your money where your mouth is, get on a plane, organize yourself with those who think like you, and go join in the fight against the international thugs known as the Islamic State. Stop leveraging the state to steal money from the rest of us to support violence that many believe is motivated by other factors and/or will not be solved and may likely be exacerbated via more state intervention. If the national military wants to fight abroad at all, then in my view, those who do not wish to contribute finances to the effort should be allowed to withdraw their support and those in the military who disagree with the “king’s” decision should be allowed to peacefully disengage.
Truth #4: “We cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves.” In my view this is the most intelligent thing that President Obama said during his speech. Not only is the United States military not capable of solving this problem, its presence in the Middle East, the American government’s support for various tyrannical regimes, and the multi-decade long military occupation of the Middle East is very reasonably the root cause of the problem. Until this issue is addressed, bombing ISIL has zero hope of meaningful success. The real battle is one of ideas. The right idea is to withdraw American soldiers from the Arabian Peninsula for good – to retreat to our own homes and neighborhoods, to take care of our own circle of morally legitimate influence (American territory), and to withdraw consent from an American government that refuses to do so. As mentioned above, those that believe ISIL is worth fighting against are free to support those efforts with their own lives and property.
Truth #5: “The intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners, including Europeans and some Americans, have joined them [ISIL] in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries to carry out deadly attacks” [emphasis mine]. This is absolutely true. The FBI, DHS, NSA, CIA, and several dozen other redundant federal bureaucracies have more than enough resources to combat such possible threats that could possibly happen in the future without abandoning basic legal principles and without waging another extension of the perpetual terror war against anyone, anywhere, forever. The possibility or even likelihood that another terrorist attack will happen in the future is no reason to throw out the principles of “presumption of innocence,” “due process,” and the use of warrants based on meaningful evidence to investigate specific violent crime. Most importantly, the idea that the “fight” must be “brought to them [the “terrorists”] so “they don’t bring it to us” is a total inversion of reality. The reason for the growth of Muslim extremism is not rocket science: it is what happens when you have a foreign military power occupying and bombing your homeland for three decades. Until this extreme occupation stops, the extreme Muslim reaction to it will continue to gain traction. This is a death spiral whose only real solution is a humble, peaceful foreign policy that aims to export goods and services rather than force.
Lie #1: “We will not be dragged into another ground war in Iraq.” This is an absurd distortion of the plain meaning of words. Less than 30 seconds earlier he says “we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.” In point of fact, and by his own admission he sent “several hundred” military personnel to Iraq in June, there were roughly 1000 there by August, and he is now sending “475 additional.” The idea that Mr. Obama is trying to convey is that “military advisors” and “trainers” are somehow not active duty soldiers (which they are) and that the perpetual increase of these personnel to support one side of a violent conflict does not constitute combat troops in a war (which it does). This is mission creep and dishonesty at its worst. By phrasing things in such a way, Mr. Obama is trying to maintain the political distinction that his wars are different because there are no boots on the ground. I guess the “service members” are somehow not active duty military, or that they do not have boots on their feet, or that those boots are walking on something other than the ground in Iraq, or that the people they are supporting are not engaged in a ground war against ISIL, or that the airmen dropping bombs somehow don’t qualify because the earth their boots touch is 30,000’ in the air and made of alloy. This kind of stuff is why every honest American should be absolutely ashamed of their government. This is nothing more and nothing less than a bold-faced lie. It is embarrassing to listen to.
Lie #2: “This is American leadership at its best.” That’s an opinion so it cannot technically be true or false – it is a value judgment. In my opinion such a statement is ridiculous. Several days ago the president admitted that he did not have a strategy. There is nothing wrong with such an admission – it actually makes sense to not have a strategy in this situation. What does not make sense is to start an ad hoc bombing campaign while saying you don’t have a strategy. Such a charade is anathema to the entire concept of leadership.
Lie #3: “I welcome Congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting it.” Mr. Obama welcomes Congressional support for several reasons. First, legally he needs it within 90 days of the day he acted unilaterally (which was more than a month ago). Second, Mr. Obama welcomes Congressional support because acting unilaterally (especially violently) when a large majority of people think what you’re doing is wrong is very dangerous to him personally. Unfortunately, most people are on board with the perpetual state of war in America so he doesn’t have much to fear there. Most importantly, Congressional support does not even remotely mean that the American people are united behind what he is doing. I for one think his behavior is criminal and immoral – similar to that of most thieves and violent thugs that call themselves “government.” It is absolutely impossible for the American people to agree on anything that anyone in government does. Democracy is a perpetual war of all against all and the idea that the American people are united in favor of more war or in favor of giving peace a chance is absurd.
Lie #4: “We live in a time of great change.” Again this is an unknowable value judgment but in my view it is total nonsense. Change is constant, however, the same patterns from history keep repeating themselves over and over again. For example, the threat for my father’s generation was “communism.” The threat for a communist living in my father’s generation was “capitalism.” The threat for my generation is “terrorism.” The threat from a terrorist’s perspective is unique to that person but likely united in general distaste for what they see as occupation by the state of Israel or the United States in the Arabian Peninsula. The constant throughout is that governments and/or ideological leaders on all sides order a bunch of people to go kill a bunch of other people they don’t know and the people on both sides generally do what they are told. What a scam.
One potential internationally recognized war crime
Obama unambiguously stated the following: “I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.” This is true in that American planes have already bombed ISIL in Syria in support of an unsuccessful hostage rescue attempt of journalist James Foley on 4 July 2014. It is unknown to me whether or not such action was coordinated with the Syrian government. That said, Mr. Obama’s statement is somewhat misleading with regard to an acknowledged bombing campaign of Syria at large. In my estimation he will absolutely hesitate to further bomb ISIL in Syria at least until 24 September 2014 when he chairs a meeting of the UN Security Council.
Why the UN Security Council is relevant: Nearly 80 years ago Justice Robert Jackson, chief prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials, established the present-day international norm that the supreme crime against humanity is a “war of aggression.” The Nuremburg tribunal established a novel standard that was adopted based on the understanding that another war to rival the Second World War was an unacceptable threat to humanity. Accordingly, international aggression is defined generally as a war that is neither in self-defense nor sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. It is clear that bombing Syrian territory does not meet the definition of self-defense because the Syrian government has not attacked the United States. While the international community may look the other way in regard to bombs dropped in support of an attempted hostage rescue of an American citizen, they may not be inclined to do so absent such a circumstance or after an open declaration by the Syrian government that such behavior will be considered “aggression.”
Four points are relevant to consider with regard to an international resolution from the United Nations Security Council. First, Syria has never attacked anybody at all outside their own territory. Second, Syria is an internationally recognized government with internationally recognized territory and it doesn’t matter if the supposed American targets are ISIL or not if the bombs are falling in Syrian territory completely against the will of their recognized government. Third, the government of Syria has made it very clear that any bombing of their territory without the coordination of their government will be considered “aggression.” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem stated such on 25 August 2014, possibly as a response to what I presume was an uncoordinated American bombing several months earlier during the aborted hostage rescue attempt. Fourth, Syria cannot possibly be said to be harboring terrorists because they have been in a civil war against ISIL and those allied with them (covert American allies called “rebels”) for the last few years.
The United States legally relies on a UN Security Council resolution and I expect that Mr. Obama will absolutely wait for one from this point forward. Therefore, look for the American president to lobby the UN Security Council for a resolution in support of an American bombing campaign in Syria when he chairs their meeting on 24 September. It is possible that Russia, with their veto power on the UN Security Council, could prevent such a resolution from taking place absent the consent of and/or coordination with their ally, the Syrian government. If such a requirement were to occur and the United States were to ignore it and bomb Syria unilaterally without coordination then it would be nothing more and nothing less than a war crime according to international law.
Justin Pavoni is a former Air Force officer and F-15E evaluator pilot. Pavoni has deployed twice to Afghanistan, served as a Special Operations liaison, and has flown 550 combat hours.