While Washington is fixated on President Trump’s tweets, antics, lies and Russiagate, the administration is ramping up a stealth escalation of our military involvement across the Middle East. As Naomi Klein warns, Trump’s “rolling shock of the chaos and spectacle” distracts from radical actions both at home and abroad. Across the Middle East, the administration drives the United States ever further into wars without end, increasing the dangers of direct military confrontation with Russia and Iran, with little awareness and no mandate from the American people. This is a recipe for calamity.
The deepening military involvement has accelerated in recent weeks. The administration will dispatch 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan, plus 400 to Syria. The president fired 23 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in retaliation for alleged Syrian use of chemical weapons against civilians. In recent weeks, U.S. forces have bombed Iranian-supported militia forces moving forward in southern Syria and shot down a Syrian jet flying over Syrian airspace. Russia has cut off coordination designed to avoid air collisions and announced that U.S. planes flying west of the Euphrates would be targeted. As the battle against the Islamic State reaches its final stage, the Pentagon seems intent on sustaining a presence in Syria, aimed at preventing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from regaining control of the country.
In Yemen, the United States is escalating its direct and indirect support for the Saudi air assault that is leveling that impoverished country. As fighting intensifies, civilian casualties and refugees are rising, more and more are driven from their homes, and hunger and deadly diseases such as cholera are spreading as health systems break under the strain. Seventeen million Yemenis suffer from lack of food, while a cholera epidemic infects another child every 35 seconds.
The escalation directly contradicts Trump’s stances during the election campaign. Back then, he indicated his skepticism of regime change, claiming — falsely — that he had opposed the Iraq invasion and denouncing the intervention in Libya. He indicated that he saw no reason to take sides in the Syrian civil war, suggesting that perhaps the United States could join with Syria and its ally Russia to take out the Islamic State. He promised he would “bomb the s--- out of ISIS” but would not get bogged down in the Middle East. This stance appealed strongly to voters weary of war and looking for a leader who would focus on our challenges here at home. That promise has now clearly been trashed.
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The escalation is also striking for the absence of any discernible strategy. It suffers less from strategic incoherence than from strategic vacuum. We’ve been in Afghanistan for 16 years, expending thousands of lives and almost a trillion dollars without being able to create a government that would defend itself, yet the Taliban now controls more territory than it did before the last surge under President Barack Obama. In Syria, the United States appears to be gearing up to take on the brutal Assad regime but has neither the plan nor the will to displace him. Adding troops in either area only ensures that the conflicts will go on without end and without victory. As a candidate, Trump certainly would have mocked the gestures as part of a “dumb war.”
The escalation is also flagrant in its illegality — both under U.S. law and under international law. Unlike Russia, the United States has not been invited into Syria by the government, so when the America shoots down a Syrian jet in Syrian airspace, it is an act of war, in direct violation of the U.N. charter. Like Obama before him, Trump claims the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) provides the domestic legal authority for the intervention in Syria. But that document authorizes force only against those who committed the 9/11 attacks and those who aided or shielded them. Syria’s Assad had nothing to do with the attacks on the United States and has fought against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Ironically, it is our supposed ally Saudi Arabia that has been the source of funds and doctrine for al-Qaeda and its Sunni offshoots.
Some on Capitol Hill are concerned about the legality. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has joined with Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to introduce a congressional authorization that would repeal the 2001 AUMF and the 2002 authorization for force against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, while explicitly authorizing five years of war against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the Taliban as well as “associated forces” to be defined later.
But the reality is that we are headed into more war without public support, without a sensible strategy or a clear purpose. Americans are tired of wars without end. The response is to fight wars on the quiet: substituting technology for troops to lower our casualties. What is needed now is not a blank check but public hearings that will expose the increasingly dangerous reality to the American people. We don’t need a rubber-stamp Congress. We need someone with a backbone to stand up as Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) did in 1966, convening hearings that exposed the folly in Vietnam and explored ways to bring the conflict to an end. Where is the Republican Fulbright of today who will question our current course before it is too late?