Congress Asleep at the Wheel

By Daniel DePetris

Americans woke up on Monday, August 1, to news that the United States military had expanded operations against the Islamic State to a fourth front — this time in Libya, a nation that continues to be riven by multiple governments claiming legitimacy, wide-open borders, a struggling economy, and a country hosting an alphabet soup of jihadist groups. 

Unfortunately, those same Americans were not provided a national debate from their government about whether an expansion of the counter-ISIL campaign in Libya on behalf of a weak, U.N.-supported administration is the correct course of action at this time. Instead, the country was afforded a quick 159-word press statement from the Pentagon announcing that the United States is now opening up yet another front in the never-ending war on terrorism.  Americans, especially the brave men and women of our armed forces who put their lives on the line, deserve better. Congress must assert its role in foreign policy, or the President will continue to consult foreign governments about our military actions instead of the American people.

“Today, at the request of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), the United States military conducted precision air strikes against ISIL targets in Sirte, Libya, to support GNA-affiliated forces seeking to defeat ISIL in its primary stronghold in Libya,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said.  “These strikes were authorized by the president following a recommendation from Secretary Carter and Chairman Dunford…GNA-aligned forces have had success in recapturing territory from ISIL thus far around Sirte, and additional U.S. strikes will continue to target ISIL in Sirte in order to enable the GNA to make a decisive, strategic advance.”

Translation: the U.S. Air Force and very likely special operations forces will now be fighting ISIL in Libya as long as the Libyan government continues to provide its consent and believes that U.S. assistance is necessary to expel ISIL from their territory.

For observers who have been monitoring Libya’s political situation since NATO helped overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime, U.S. military intervention in the North African state is not a surprise.  The U.S. military has been engaged in isolated operations against terrorist networks inside Libya for the past two years — including a snatch-and-grab operation to nab Ahmed Abu Khattala (who has since been indicted on terrorism charges in U.S. District Court) and a precision airstrike on an ISIL training camp in February 2016 near the Libyan city of Sabratha, which killed more than 40 militants stationed in the area.  Both of them were plausibly connected to a specific U.S. national security interest; in the case of Khattala, justice for the 2012 Benghazi attacks, and in Sabratha, the prevention of a possible terrorist attack on Tunisia, a key U.S. partner in the region.  Both were also one-off operations that--one could argue--didn’t necessarily require input or approval from the U.S. Congress under the War Powers Act, a piece of legislation that presidents of both political parties have watered down to the point of irrelevance during wartime.

The beginning of a brand new military operation that is expected to continue into the immediate future, however, is far different from those two previous cases.  What Pentagon and White House officials are indicating is that U.S. military assets will be employed for as long as it takes the Libyan government to re-capture the city of Sirte.  Given the history of the counter-ISIL campaign over the past two years, however, the accomplishment of one objective can easily turn into a far more expansive mission, like the dismantling of the ISIL network across the entire expanse of Libyan territory.  What was originally described as a humanitarian operation on behalf of Iraq’s Yazidis in August 2014 quickly morphed into a full-blown war against a terrorist organization one month later, with the conflict only increasing in intensity with little or no debate in Congress.

To their credit, there are some members of Congress who are tired of watching from the sidelines.  Sen. Tim Kaine, Secretary Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential nominee, has been the loudest advocate for a new authorization for the use of military force tailored specifically to the war against ISIL.  Ditto Sens. Jeff Flake and Rand Paul, both of whom strongly believe that the executive branch is shredding Article I, Section 8 the U.S. Constitution and the War Powers Act which mandates a full, honest, and open debate in front of the American people before U.S. jets or U.S. soldiers are deployed for a mission that is open-ended.

Due in part to a broadening of the executive branch’s authority over the past fifteen years and the unwillingness of lawmakers in both parties to press for accountability, the costs, length, unintended consequences, and strategic benefits of U.S. military force are no longer debated in front of American people.

Instead, more airstrikes on more countries is an exclusive domain of the men and women who are fortunate enough to be working in the Pentagon or the National Security Council.

It’s long past time that Congress get back in the game on matters of war and peace.  Holding hearings, screaming at administration witnesses, and carping from the sidelines is not a substitute for a real, honest, and straightforward assessment — before, not after, American troops and pilots are sent into harms way.  That is what the U.S. constitution requires, it’s what our soldiers deserve, and it’s why the American people elect leaders to represent their interests in Congress.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on August 3, 2016. Read more HERE