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Said Arikat

US wars in Middle East are here to stay

US soldiers are already back in Iraq, and there are plans for more [AFP/Getty]

Date of publication: 13 February, 2015

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Comment: Obama says he will limit presidential powers of war, but what he says and what happens in Iraq and beyond are two different matters, says Said Arikat.

On Wednesday, 11 February 2015, President Barack Obama asked Congress for formal authorisation for military action against the Islamic State group, even though US bombers have been pummelling the group since last August.

The US president has been satisfied to keep things as they were for the past six months. The Republican Congress was all too content to stay on the sidelines, because Republicans are the "tough" party that likes US wars everywhere.

War is good for business, and therefore good for the Republicans. The Democrats are liberal softies, who are more likely to support hybrid cars than F-35 fighters at $200m each.

And so Obama and the Republicans, who otherwise despise each other, found a convenient common ground in war.

The Congressional leadership (Republicans and Democrats alike) didn't want to deal with an authorisation vote before the midterm elections of last November; then they didn’t want to deal with authorisation in the lame-duck session.

Obama, the one-time constitutional law professor, knows he also has to remain within the dictates of the constitution, which assigns responsibility for waging wars to Congress. With a caveat. It is called the "War Powers Act", or more specifically the War Powers Act Resolution of 1973 - not the original of 1941.

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The law states the president must notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action, and forbids operations lasting more than 60 days, with a further 30-day withdrawal period, without an authorisation of the use of military force or a declaration of war.

That is still a whole 60 days of unadulterated US military might - both weapon and treasure - without a question.

George W Bush upped the ante with the passage of The Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which he signed (passed as SJ Res 23 by Congress on September 14, 2001), and became law on September 18, 2001.

This authorised him to use US forces against those responsible for the attacks a week earlier, on September 11, 2001.

It granted the president the authority to use all "necessary and appropriate force" against those whom he determined "planned, authorised, committed or aided" the September 11 attacks, and those who sheltered the attackers.

Bush followed this up with "HJ Res 114" on 16 October, 2002, which was crafted and designed for the invasion of Iraq.

Obama says he wants to limit his own powers.
But wait a second... [AFP]

Ironically, Obama, who rode his high anti-Iraq war horse into the White House, promising to end this kind of abuse of presidential power in war, was quite content - even as he spoke of his request to Congress on Wednesday - to say he had only used powers granted to him by the SJ Res 23 bill.

The president boasted: "More than 2,000 coalition airstrikes have pounded these terrorists. We're disrupting their command and control and supply lines. We're destroying their tanks... their training camps, and the oil and gas facilities and infrastructure that fund their operations. We're taking out their commanders, their fighters, and their leaders."

He emphasised: "In Iraq, local forces have largely held the line and in some places have pushed ISIL [an alternate nomenclature for the Islamic State group] back. In Syria, ISIL failed in its major push to take the town of Kobane, losing countless fighters in the process - fighters who will never again threaten innocent civilians."

He promised: "The resolution we've submitted today does not call for the deployment of US ground combat forces to Iraq or Syria. It is not the authorisation of another ground war, like Afghanistan or Iraq.

"This resolution repeals the 2002 authorisation of force for the invasion of Iraq and limits this new authorisation to three years. I do not believe America's interests are served by endless war, or by remaining on a perpetual war footing.

"As a nation, we need to ask the difficult and necessary questions about when, why and how we use military force."

So is Obama stepping back into his pre-presidency anti-war mode? The proposal says explicitly that it does not authorise "enduring offensive ground combat operations". They actually place limits on the duration and the scope of military actions - limits that previous presidents have rejected.

But not so fast. There are many thousands of US soldiers already in Iraq. "The 2,600 American troops in Iraq today largely serve on bases - and, yes, they face the risks that come with service in any dangerous environment," he said. "But they do not have a combat mission. They are focused on training Iraqi forces, including Kurdish forces."

     The 2,600 American troops in Iraq today largely serve on bases... they do not have a combat mission.
- Barack Obama, US president

He added that Iraqis, Kurds, Jordanians and Syrians can and do fight for themselves, and the US "must require them to do those things".

But listening to Pentagon leaders, one gets the feeling that a much larger military campaign, with US troops being in the thick of it, is in the offing.

Obama pulled out of Iraq altogether at the end of 2011 after the obstinate then-Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, rejected a plan that would give a force of about 10,000 troops immunity from Iraqi prosecution.

The 2,600 US troops back in Iraq today have that immunity, and the Obama administration has plans to boost their number.

A knowledgeable source tells me that the US wants 10,000 soldiers in Iraq, and that the current Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has already agreed to their immunity from Iraq prosecution, with Tehran's approval.

Obama and the Pentagon know quite well that only ground forces will liberate Mosul, and then go on to cross the Syrian border. They also know that Arab members of the anti-IS alliance - with the possible exception of Jordan - are unwilling to send soldiers into other Arab countries.

America's wars in the Middle East are here to stay.

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