So we had a hearing a week ago on ISIS (“we” being the House Foreign Affairs Committee), and the witnesses were three experts on U.S. policy in the Middle East, all dues-paying members of the Military-Industrial Complex. They were James Jeffrey, who was Deputy Chief of Mission at our embassy in Iraq; Rick Brennan, a political scientist at the Rand Corp.; and Dafna Rand, who was on the National Security Council staff. The White House had just released the President’s draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS, and I felt that I needed a good translator, so I asked them what the ISIS war authorization meant. Their answers were chilling: the ISIS war authorization means whatever the President wants it to mean. If you don’t believe me, just listen to them:
GRAYSON: Section 2(c) of the President’s draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force reads as follows: “The authority granted in subsection A [to make war on ISIS and forces ‘alongside’ ISIS] does not authorize the use of US armed forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.” Ambassador Jeffrey, what does ‘enduring’ mean?
JEFFREY: My answer would be a somewhat sarcastic one: “Whatever the Executive at the time defines ‘enduring’ as.” And I have a real problem with that.
GRAYSON: Dr. Brennan?
BRENNAN: I have real problems with that also. I don’t know what it means. I can just see the lawyers fighting over the meaning of this. But more importantly, if you’re looking at committing forces for something that you are saying is either [a] vital or important interest of the United States, and you get in the middle of a battle, and all of a sudden, are you on offense, or are you on defense? What happens if neighbors cause problems? Wars never end the way that they were envisioned. And so I think that that’s maybe a terrible mistake to put in the AUMF.
GRAYSON: Dr. Rand?
RAND: Enduring, in my mind, specifies an open-endedness, it specifies lack of clarity on the particular objective at hand.
GRAYSON: Dr. Rand, is two weeks ‘enduring’?
RAND: I would leave that to the lawyers to determine exactly.
GRAYSON: So your answer is [that] you don’t know, right? How about two months?
RAND: I don’t know. Again, I think it would depend on the particular objective, ‘enduring’ in my mind is not having a particular military objective in mind.
GRAYSON: So you don’t really know what it means. Is that a fair statement?
RAND: ‘Enduring,’ in my mind, means open-ended.
GRAYSON: All right — Section Five of the draft of the Authorization of the Use of Military Force reads as follows: “In this resolution, the term ‘associated persons or forces’ means individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” Ambassador Jeffrey, what does “alongside ISIL” mean?
JEFFREY: I didn’t draft this thing.
GRAYSON: Nor did I.
JEFFREY: Nor did you, but I would have put that in there if I had been drafting it, and the reason is, I think they went back to 2001, of course this is the authorization we’re still using, along with the 2002 one for this campaign, and these things morph. For example, we’ve had a debate over whether ISIS is really an element of Al Qaeda; it certainly was when I knew it as Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2010 to 2012, and these semantic arguments confuse us and confuse our people on the ground, in trying to deal with these folks. You’ll know it when you see it, if it’s ISIS or it’s an ally of ISIS.
GRAYSON: How about the Free Syrian Army, are they fighting alongside ISIL in Syria?
JEFFREY: No, they’re not fighting alongside ISIL, in fact often they’re fighting against ISIL, and ISIL against them in particular.
GRAYSON: What about Assad, is he fighting “alongside” or against? It’s kind of hard to tell without a scorecard, isn’t it?
JEFFREY: It sure is.
GRAYSON: Yes. What about you, Dr. Brennan, can you tell me what “alongside ISIL” means?
BRENNAN: No, I really couldn’t. I think that, what, you know, it might be. The 9/11 Commission uses the phrase “radical islamist organizations.” I think maybe if we went to a wording like that, it includes all those 52 groups that adhere to this type of ideology, that threaten the United States. But we’re putting ourselves in boxes and as you said Senator – Congressman — I’m trying to understand what that means, what the limits are … who we’re dealing with, and it’s very confusing.
GRAYSON: Dr. Rand?
RAND: Well, first of all, I believe that the confusion is probably a function of the fact that this is an unclassified document, so it’s not going to specify exactly which groups are considered associates; that would be for a classified setting. But second, as I said in the testimony, the nature of the alliances within ISIL are changing and are fluid, and those who are targeting, the military experts, know exactly who is a derivative or an associate or an ally of ISIS, at any given moment.
GRAYSON: Why are you so confident of that? It seems to me that it’s a matter of terminology, not a matter of ascertainable fact.
RAND: Based on my public service, I’ve seen some of the lawyers, and some of the methodologies, and . . . .
GRAYSON: Okay. Here’s the $64 billion question for you, Ambassador Jeffrey, and if we have time, for you others. If you can’t tell us — you three experts can’t tell us — what these words mean, what does that tell us? Ambassador Jeffrey?
JEFFREY: That it’s very difficult to be using a tool basically designed to declare war or something like war on a nation-state, which has a fixed definition, against a group that morphs, that changes its name, that has allies, and other things. Do we not fight it? We have to fight it. Are we having a hard time defining it? You bet.
GRAYSON: Dr. Brennan?
BRENNAN: I’d agree with the ambassador. I think the issue we that need to be looking at is trying to broaden terminology and understand that it is a tenet, or organizations and groups that adhere to this ideology, and make it broad enough that if one pops up in a different country that is doing the same thing, that is a sister of this organization, the President has the authority to act.
GRAYSON: Dr. Brennan, I think that you just described a blank check, which I’m not willing to give to the President or anybody else. But thank you for your time.
So that’s what the experts had to say. Now I have a question for you: How do you spell the word “quagmire”? Answer: I-S-L-A-M-I-C S-T-A-T-E.
Rep. Alan Grayson
“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass ch. 6 (1871).