Obama may have campaigned in 2008 as the candidate who would return us to the Clinton era, when terror attacks were deemed crimes suitable for civilian prosecution rather than acts of war fit for military response. As president, though, Obama has authorized hundreds more drone attacks than did his supposedly war-mongering predecessor. In addition, he has dramatically extended the frontiers of the campaign, which now include not only Pakistan and Yemen but also a vast swath of the Maghreb.
Nor is that all. This week, Brandon Webb and Jack Murphy, two former special-ops warriors, published Benghazi: The Definitive Report. If the book is accurate, Obama delegated to John Brennan, his top counterterrorism adviser and nominee for CIA director, unfettered authority to conduct a covert war against terrorists in northern Africa — an enterprise conducted outside the normal chain of command and without the knowledge of relevant American diplomatic and intelligence officials.
Let’s put aside for the moment that, had George Bush done something like this, only the peal of impeachment bells would have silenced the media outrage. The pertinent question is: Who are the targets of this alleged covert war?
Yes, there are heinous jihadists in Mali, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, and other African badlands. The problem is that the vast majority of them had nothing to do with 9/11 and their connections to al-Qaeda are murky at best. The problem is that, while some of them approve of al-Qaeda’s worldwide jihad, most of them lack the means, and many the desire, to attack the United States. Thus, according to at least some knowledgeable military and intelligence veterans, our drones are catalyzing threats against the United States that would not otherwise exist.
Do not get me wrong. We have seen the wages of abiding safe havens for al-Qaeda. In Afghanistan and Sudan, the network set up shop, trained recruits, and convinced many who’d been aggrieved locally to terrorize globally. When al-Qaeda and its affiliates establish these redoubts, as they are now trying to do in northern and eastern Africa, they plot mass-murder attacks against the United States and American targets throughout the world. That is why we must not allow that to happen anyplace. Naturally, we do not want to make the threat against us worse than it is. But ignoring it is not an option. The logic of jihadist ideology is global aggression, even if many of its adherents are not quite so ambitious . . . at least for the time being. We are therefore better off striking jihadist strongholds than refraining from striking them. The additional enemies we may inspire are more than offset by those our resolve discourages.
So President Obama is right to want our extraordinary military capabilities trained on emerging jihadist hubs — and I applaud him for recognizing that effective national security need not entail extravagant nation-building projects that do not make us safer. But to have legitimacy, drone attacks and other special-operations initiatives against our jihadist enemies must be authorized by Congress. The Constitution calls for war to be waged by the commander-in-chief, but it must be approved by the sovereign — and that is not the president. It is the American people, acting through their representatives in Congress.
Congressional authorization is not just what our law demands, it is what sound policy dictates. Under the Obama administration’s unilateral approach to war, on some days we are targeting jihadists in Abbottabad and in villages along the Gulf of Aden, while on other days we are somehow aligning with jihadists in Benghazi and Cairo (and maybe Aleppo).
The end of the war in Afghanistan is far from the end of the threat to America. It is past time to specify who the enemy is. It is past time to make clear that, while we have no desire to occupy foreign lands, we are resolved — as a nation, not just as a presidential administration — to pursue and defeat our jihadist enemies, wherever they are and however long it takes.