President Obama last week began his second term by promising that “a decade of war is now ending.” As he spoke, the US military was rapidly working its way into another war, this time in the impoverished African country of Mali. As far as we know, the US is only providing transport and intelligence assistance to France, which initiated the intervention then immediately called Washington for back-up and funding. However, even if US involvement is limited, and, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, US boots on the ground are not being considered “at this time,” this clearly is developing into another war. As usual, the mission is creeping.
Within the first week of French military action in Mali, the promise that it would be a quick operation to put down an Islamic rebel advance toward the capitol was broken. France announced that it would be forced to send in thousands of troops and would need to remain far longer than the few weeks it initially claimed would be necessary.
Media questions as to whether the US has Special Operations forces, drones, or CIA paramilitary units active in Mali are unanswered by the Administration. Congress has asked few questions and demanded few answers from the president. As usual, it was not even consulted. But where does the president get the authority to become a co-combatant in French operations in Mali, even if US troops are not yet overtly involved in the attack?
How did we get to Mali? Blowback and unintended consequences played key roles. When the president decided to use the US military to attack Libya in 2011, Congress was not consulted. The president claimed that UN and NATO authority for the use of US military force were sufficient and even superior to any kind of Congressional declaration. Congress once again relinquished its authority, but also its oversight power, by remaining silent. That meant the difficult questions such as why is the action necessary, what would it entail, and what kind of unintended consequences might we see if the operation does not go exactly as planned, were neither asked nor answered.
When Gaddafi was overthrown in Libya, many fighters from Mali who had lived in Libya and been trained by Gaddafi’s military returned to their home country with sophisticated weapons and a new determination to continue their fight for independence for northern Mali. Thus the France-initiated action against Libya in 2011 led to new violence and instability in Mali that France decided it must also address. Shortly after the French attack on Mali, rebels in Algeria attacked a BP gas facility in retaliation for their government’s decision to allow foreign military to fly over Algerian territory en route to Mali. Thus the action in Mali to solve the crisis created by the prior action in Libya is turning into a new crisis in Algeria. This is the danger of interventionism and, as we saw in Vietnam more than four decades ago, it threatens to drag the US further into the conflict. And Congress is AWOL.
There is a reason why the framers of our Constitution placed the authority to declare war strictly with the Legislative Branch of government. They knew well that kings were all too willing to go to war without the consent of those who would do the killing and dying — and funding. By placing that authority in Congress, the people’s branch of government, they intended to blunt the executive branch’s enthusiasm toward overseas adventurism. The consequences of this steady erosion of our system toward the unitary executive are dire.