News & Politics

5 Things the U.S. Can Actually Do Instead of Complaining About the New Iraq War

The air strikes are happening—let’s hold Obama and his military accountable.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Marcio Jose Bastos Silva

American culture is stuck in perpetual rewind: the Clintons, Ninja Turtles, Buzzfeed. Now comes a much more serious affair – Iraq War 3: Revenge of the Jihadi. Like all horror-movie sequels, this one has a new cast but the same basic plot line, plus the threat of an even bloodier ending at the hands of a new masked enemy.

Audiences can shout the obvious at the protagonists—“Don’t go in the house!”—but in the forever conflict that is the Middle East and North Africa in the 21st century, former anti-war candidates and generals don’t hear us like they did in the 20th. There is no turning off a war that has no end. Not that we shouldn’t try; it’s just that we can’t act as if we know exactly how to do it.

So it’s been grimly amusing, over the past few days, to see some conservatives make almost the same retroactive case against Obama for striking ISIS in northern Iraq that they did against Bush for his still-radioactive hot mess across the entire country, even as they temper criticism of the strikes with politically required pro-war flourishes. Lindsey Graham warned of terrorists in the White House but failed to offer his own plan for keeping them out. Hillary Clinton reverted to pre-invasion support, only to express doubt about continued action.

But right now, people are dying. People are trapped. Even if some, at last, are being saved.

“There is no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq,” the president said on Monday evening. “The only solution is Iraqis coming together and forming A unified government.” (HIs own efforts at non-military regime change show that the president is also apparently in favor of Americans coming together and forming Iraq’s unified government.)

Well, here’s a solution we can start working on back home: hold the administration and the military accountable in real time, because there is no such thing as a limited military engagement anymore. If the price of freedom is constant vigilance, the price of constant war is constant investigation, perpetual skepticism.

War critics and advocates alike need to skip the backward-looking fault-finding and point-scoring and do some forward-looking fault-finding instead. These are some domestic steps Congress could take right now:

1. Demand a real authorization of the use of military force.

Ted Cruz’s stopped clock has the right time on this, as does Rand Paul’s. What used to be a CodePink-ish position is now, if not mainstream, then at least talked about on both sides of the stream. The idea that the president needs to regularly ask permission to continue military engagement is such a good idea even Obama agrees with it! Officially, his administration backs the repeal of the 2002 AUMF. Practically, it has rolled right along, telling Congress, “He didn’t feel he had any need for authority from us.”

The idea of regular review of military action is actually a part of the War Powers Act (remember that?); it specifies a report every 60 days. You should expect one any day now.

2. Present your own plan, earlier rather than later.

Calling for Obama to have a plan for what unfolds next is great, but it took four years for congressional Democrats to present “A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq.” Of course, trying to plan an invasion years in advance doesn’t work, either: The GOP platform in 2003 called for the “liberation” of Iraq .. though that wasn’t really a plan so much as wishful thinking.

That you can be both too late and too soon in your strategy speaks to the importance of settling into the reality of action as it happens. It’s arguable the combination of the GOP’s premature optimism about the invasion and the Democrat’s premature optimism about withdrawal that created the fractured political environment for ISIS' surge forward, after all.

Perhaps the answer is to avoid the temptation to think your own favored solution is one that will lead to hearts and flowers and happy endings.

3. Make all military and foreign aid as transparent as possible.

Last year, Tea Party representatives and Oxfam lobbied together in favor of a bill legislating such transparency; it had bipartisan co-sponsors in senators Marco Rubio and Ben Cardin. The bill went beyond the administration’s voluntary releases about humanitarian aid – it codified that policy, and it required transparency about “security assistance.”

Security assistance accounts for $25 billion of our $48 billion foreign aid budget, and includes direct military aid (like buying fighter jets) and equipping local police. Now, it was hardly an attempt to make the CIA live-tweet its actions; the bill sought to allow lawmakers and voter evaluate what actions involving “the use of force” might already have been taken. The administration successfully opposed it.

4. Enforce standards on contractors who do our dirty work.

Candidate Obama promised to extend the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Enforcement Act to civilians; President Obama has yet to. This is a question of policing both behavior and costs, and acknowledging the reality of an outsourced war. It shouldn’t be easy to send a for-hire replacement army. On the financial side, the Department of Defense spends almost three times as much when it hires a civilian to do the same job that could be done by military personnel.

For anyone skeptical about Obama’s promise that boots won’t be back on the ground, the boots for hire still might be.

5. Admit we’re going to be at war for a very, very long time.

The worst mistakes in modern warfare seem to be made when we mistake the least wrong action with the best action. It’s politics that push people from cautious endorsement to blinding enthusiasm; realism means planning for less violence, but perhaps not peace.

It’s time to put aside your philosophical reasoning about the moral quality of Obama’s decision to begin bombing Iraq. Not because “politics stops at the water’s edge,” exactly, but because once we start the war machine —and Obama has surely turned the key—you need to know how to steer it more than stop it.

Ana Marie Cox is political columnist for the Guardian US.