Endless War, Not Just War: The Problem with U.S. Strikes on ISIL

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Obama ISIL speech

President Obama addresses the nation on his ISIL strategy. Credit: Creative Commons/CreoFire

This time it will be different. That’s what President Obama said as he assured the American people that an American effort to “degrade and destroy” ISIL, the vicious terrorist group, “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
No, Mr. President, it won’t. Not in any meaningful sense. This is just more war, and it is certainly not a Just War according to many of the tradition’s principles.
In fact, what ISIL has done is issue us an invitation to a “cosmic conflict.” We need to say, “No thanks.” ISIL needs the “Great Satan” of America for its recruitment strategy. This is clear from their goading in the truly horrifying message that accompanied the video of the beheading of Stephen Sotloff, warning that his execution was retribution for “this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State.”
ISIL can’t have a cosmic war of good against evil if the chief cosmic enemy just works on politically and financially undermining them. Actually, political reform in Iraq and drying up their sources of funding are effective for destroying them, but bad for their self-inflated propaganda.
ISIL needs us to attack them. We should not do it because it is just continuing the endless wars of the Bush administration and continuing to create enemies.
Why is that not clear to Americans and to the American president?
Right now, one reason this is not clear is that reason has left the building. We are back to the panic and the profiteering that drove the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Another reason is that we are in an election season and “strength” is a message panicked Americans want to hear from their leaders. The problem is that “strength” is always correlated with force — and is always short-term thinking. Like the attack on Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, the costs are astronomical and we are less and less safe.
Stop and think. What does this rush to use more force sound like? It sounds like the dubious rationales for the attack on Iraq.
The attack on Iraq was sold to the American people as a Just War because it was “self-defense.” The attack on Iraq was not a Just War. It was a war of choice, a war of pre-emption and it played right into a cosmic war of good and evil framework, a dubious theology of both sides in the conflict.
The choice to attack ISIL is also one of pre-emption. Has ISIL attacked the United States? No, and the president has admitted “we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland.”
Now, a case can be made in a Just War framework that if there is a clear and present danger, not yet carried out, pre-emption can be warranted. But if there were such a clear threat, surely the President would have mentioned it. But he did not. Instead, the President’s speech built the same kind of shaky scaffold as was used to justify the original Iraq War, using arguments like “our intelligence community believes” that Europeans, Americans and other foreigners have joined ISIL and “could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”
Could. Might. Believe. That’s speculation.
Credible threat? No. Thus, there is no “Just Cause,” the first of the Just War criteria.
What about the second Just War criterion, “proper authority”? President Obama told congressional leaders on Tuesday he has the authority to carry out his planned strategy against ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria without authorization from legislators. This is to continue the mistakes made after 9/11. The Authorization to Use Military Force was rushed through Congress and signed by President Bush just a week after the attacks.
The AUMF should be repealed as it is at the root of America’s endless global war on terror. It has helped undermine the balance of power in our government, contributing to the unitary executive. Since the attack on Afghanistan, it has been used to justify drone strikes around the world, the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects — potentially including Americans — and the operation of the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Despite efforts to repeal it, the authorization for endless war continues.
“Endless war” on its face violates the Just War criterion of reasonable success, and that includes having an exit strategy. “Degrade and destroy” is far too vague and broad, especially considering ISIL is not a state, but an organization that operates in Iraq, Syria and has designs on other regions. And this global war on terror is just war without end, war that has no chance of success, in fact war that is self-perpetuating because it creates the next generation of enemies.
Bombing campaigns with no “boots on the ground” sounds so sanitized and bloodless, for Americans, anyway. This is especially the case with drone war, and drones will surely figure heavily in this “degrade and destroy” campaign.
But bombs and drones kill civilians. That’s a fact, and drones have killed far more civilians than the U.S. admits.
No matter how careful the targeting, the civilian deaths have been documented over and over in the U.S. drone wars. And as Ibrahim Mothana, activist and writer from Yemen, tragically dead at age 24, wrote in 2012 for the New York Times, “”DEAR OBAMA, when a U.S. drone missile kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you, guaranteed.”
That is the message we should hear, not the hideous posturing of ISIL.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the global drone wars, and now this campaign against ISIL violate the criterion of just conduct of war that centrally means not targeting, but also not indiscriminately injuring or killing non-combatants. The argument is often made that terrorists “hide” behind civilians, but whether this, in any specific instance, is true does not license indiscriminate injuring or killing of those innocents. This means the war should not be waged, not that it should be conducted anyway.
A terrorist organization like ISIL needs the “Great Satan” to show up or their grand delusions of their cosmic significance in a war of good and evil do not materialize.
When will Americans quit panicking and get wise to this goading? When will we be smarter about how we defeat these movements?
You defeat terrorists with national solidarity, smart political and financial strategies, and the strength that comes from refusing to indiscriminately bomb and drone people. Bombing and droning looks like “doing something” and gives us a false sense of security. What we do, however, is just give away our values right and left, engaging in pre-emptive war and killing civilians.
Bombing and droning do not work to end terrorism. That just punches our ticket for the next decade’s ride on the carousel of endless war.
Isn’t it time we got off this ride?
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary.