WASHINGTON -- The White House announced on Friday that a small number of U.S. troops are heading into northern Syria to assist local ground troops in the fight against the Islamic State.
Though the deployment of ground troops is a somewhat expected extension of the air war the U.S. has conducted over Iraq and Syria since last August, the announcement is in stark contrast with President Barack Obama’s 2013 promise of no "boots on the ground" in Syria.
For now, there will be only 50 special forces troops in Syria, limited to an advisory, non-combat role. Nonetheless, the optics of U.S. forces deployed to yet another country in the Middle East is a major blow to the president, who campaigned on winding down U.S. military adventurism.
As Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) pointed out on Friday, deploying Americans to Syria “could bring us into direct confrontation with the Russian Federation military and Syrian government forces” -- not to mention Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters who are backing Syrian President Bashar Assad.
With just over a year left in office, Obama has overseen the extension of the wars he inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the expansion of U.S. military action in far-flung corners of the world. Though his promise to utilize diplomacy and multilateralism in place of bombs has yielded some success, particularly in the case of the Iran nuclear deal, Obama’s foreign policy doctrine has been overshadowed by a failure to extricate the U.S. from a state of “perpetual wartime footing,” as he pledged to do over two years ago.
“I will give our military a new mission on my first day in office: ending this war,” then-Senator Obama said in July 2008, just four months before elections.
At the end of his first term, the last of the American troops withdrew from Iraq, and at the end of 2011, Obama touted the fulfillment of a key campaign promise.
But there were early signs that the 2011 withdrawal would not be the last of America’s military presence in war-torn Iraq. The U.S. left in charge Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who oversaw a corrupt government that alienated the country’s Sunni minority.
In the summer of 2014, Islamic State militants stormed the Iraqi city of Mosul with little resistance, despite the fact that the U.S. had pumped $25 billion and eight years of training into the Iraqi military.
When Obama inevitably announced limited airstrikes over Iraq and Syria to counter the extremist group, he was careful to distance his endeavor from the war of choice his predecessor George W. Bush began in Iraq in 2003. “As Commander-in-chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” he pledged.
Since that speech just over a year ago, the U.S. has sent over 3,000 American soldiers to Iraq. Because they serve an advisory rather than a combat role, the Obama administration insists they are not a “boots on the ground” presence.
Perhaps weary of repeating what critics describe as a premature withdrawal from Iraq, predicated on political promises rather than realities on the ground, Obama has repeatedly delayed pulling the last American troops out of Afghanistan.
As with Iraq, the president has already declared an end to the war in Afghanistan. Last December, Obama announced the end of the American combat role there -- but in March, heeding the request of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, he committed to keeping 10,000 soldiers deployed there through the end of this year.
But last month, the Taliban took over the strategic Afghan city of Kunduz. Two weeks later, the White House again stalled its withdrawal plan, announcing that those troops would remain throughout 2016 and be halved when Obama leaves office in 2017 -- guaranteeing he will pass the war in Afghanistan along to his successor.
Authorization for the Use of Military Force
“Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states,” Obama said in 2013, referring to the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. “I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate,” he pledged.
Passed one week after the Sept. 11 attacks, lawmakers envisioned the authorization would apply to the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. But because it has no geographic constraints and a vague definition of the enemy, the president has relied on the 2001 law as legal justification for military action in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and, most recently, Syria.
Obama administration lawyers pointed to the 2001 AUMF as the legal basis for the special forces raid that took out Osama bin Laden in 2011 and the drone strike that killed American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki a few months later.
The failure to repeal such an wide-ranging war authorization has effectively diminished the role of Congress in publicly debating whether the U.S. should go to war.
Admittedly, Congress is partially to blame for this. Lawmakers don’t need the executive to tell them to replace an outdated war authorization with one tailored to the current conflict, as American University Law Professor Steve Vladeck noted.
But Obama’s decision to begin airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria last year without consulting Congress rendered any subsequent congressional action symbolic.
“What's made it difficult is that everyone knows that regardless of what we do on AUMF, it's not going to change anything whatsoever on the ground," said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) in April, explaining Congress’ reluctance to draft and vote on a new war authorization.
Obama has more than halved the prisoner population at Guantanamo Bay, now at 112 detainees. But still, detainee transfers have occurred at a glacial pace, considering the president issued an executive order immediately upon entering office pledging to close the prison within one year.
Here, Congress bears much of the blame. Since 2010, lawmakers have incorporated into the annual defense spending bill provisions that restrict the president’s ability to transfer Guantanamo prisoners abroad and move the prison to the U.S.
Obama has threatened to veto the defense bill every year since 2011, but acted on his threat for the first time this month. When he vetoed the 2016 defense authorization, he cited its reliance on a wartime slush fund to avoid budget cuts and the Guantanamo-related restrictions.
This past week, Congress reached a budget deal that addressed the first problem -- meaning Obama’s commitment to closing the prison before he leaves office is about to be put to the test. Obama will have to lean heavily on congressional Democrats to sustain his veto, scheduled for a vote in the House next week.
With the slush-fund spending gimmick resolved, Obama will have to make the case that this is his last chance try to close the notorious prison facility.
But potential allies in the effort to close Guantanamo have slammed the president’s failure to present a comprehensive plan to Congress.
"There is still no plan on what to do and how to do it with the detainees at Guantanamo Bay," Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) told the AP last month. McCain is one of the few Republicans who favors closing the prison, but has said that he’ll have a tough time convincing his colleagues to join him in the absence of a viable alternative solution. "If the administration complains about the provisions concerning Guantanamo, then it's their fault because they never came forward with a plan."
To conclude the rundown on a positive note, Obama's nuclear deal with Iran is perhaps the greatest fulfillment of the president’s pledge to replace calls for war with diplomatic entreaties.
Obama first pledged to reach out to the Iranians for diplomatic talks aimed at ensuring the peaceful nature of their nuclear program when he was on the campaign trail in 2007.
Once in office, Obama convinced an international coalition of countries -- including reluctant parties like China and Russia -- to instate devastating sanctions against Iran aimed at bringing the Islamic Republic to the negotiating table.
At the same time, he worked to quiet those in his own country who called for pre-emptive military strikes against Iran and who argued the revolutionary country could never be brought in line with diplomacy.
Once nuclear talks between Iran, the U.S. and five world powers began in earnest, Obama thwarted efforts by Congress to impose additional sanctions against Iran, which could have derailed the fragile negotiating process.
After the seven countries reached an agreement to provide sweeping sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for a significantly downsized nuclear program, the Obama administration launched into an aggressive outreach campaign to Congress to ensure that lawmakers wouldn’t tank the deal.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ruled out future cooperative efforts between Iran and the U.S., and the Americans have been careful to hedge expectations on warming relations between the two countries. But for the first time, Iran joined United Nations-led talks in Vienna this week aimed at reaching a political solution to the Syrian civil war, which is in its fifth year.
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