The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Get ready for the return of the Global War On Terror

Are you ready for a revival of the Global War on Terror? Not that it ever really went away (even if President Obama retired the term), but the increasingly complex situation with ISIS is moving America toward a return to the days of fear and loathing, when no threat was too minimal to hype and no policy response was too ill-considered.

As Congress is considering Obama’s proposal for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force against ISIS, Republicans believe they have justification to make that authorization as expansive as possible. First ISIS drew Jordan into a more intense involvement in the conflict by publicly executing a Jordanian pilot, and now they seem to have pulled Egypt in as well; after an ISIS affiliate in Libya released a video of a group of Egyptian Coptic Christians being executed on a beach over the weekend, the Egyptian military bombed ISIS locations in Libya.

It would be nice if we could look at each new development in this conflict and make a rational assessment of what it actually changes, how it affects the United States, and what we should do, or not do, in response. But brutality overwhelms rationality, just as ISIS intends. A couple of hundred thousand Americans die every year from preventable medical errors and the response from the government amounts to “Gee, that’s too bad,” but all it takes is a few videos of brutal executions 6,000 miles away to spur a wholesale reexamination of American foreign policy.

ISIS has now displaced al Qaeda in some important ways. They’re the ones dominating the headlines, and if you’re an aspiring militant in a remote village somewhere looking for meaning in a grand and bloody struggle, ISIS is the one to whom you’ll pledge your allegiance. ISIS wants much the same thing that al Qaeda wanted: Attention, renown, and the kind of legitimacy that can only come from being at war with the world’s greatest military power. Al Qaeda saw spectacular terrorist attacks as the way to achieve its goals, while ISIS has found a much easier way to reach the same ends: Medieval brutality, channeled through social media. Planning something like September 11 took time, resources, and expertise; all it takes for ISIS to get the world’s attention and outrage is a few prisoners to murder and a Twitter account. Perhaps if YouTube had existed in 2001, al Qaeda would have gone the same route.

To date, ISIS has killed four Americans, a horrible tragedy for those people and their families. But since the idea of the group’s threat to America is at this point entirely hypothetical, we should be as specific as we can when we talk about that threat. Do we think they’re going to try to hijack planes or send agents here to set off bombs? And if so, what do we need to do to counter those threats that we aren’t already doing? If we’re going to expand our military involvement in the Middle East, is there a way to do it that won’t create more problems than it solves?

Those are simple, obvious questions, but so often they’re overwhelmed by people waving their arms and shouting “We’re all gonna die!” In the days and years after September 11, Republicans repeated that al Qaeda was an “existential threat,” a notion that was utterly insane yet seldom examined. And we certainly acted as though the very existence of the United States of America was indeed in question. Congress gave the federal government a slate of new powers to spy on its citizens. We created a surveillance apparatus of gargantuan size and scope. We deployed a network of secret prisons as sites for a program of torture. And we all got used to the idea that the War on Terror is forever.

Given that Republicans control both houses, there are only two plausible outcomes to the debate over the AUMF. The first is that Congress can’t agree on a resolution. The second is that a broader resolution passes, perhaps one that eliminates the three-year expiration date written into Obama’s proposal and includes mention of Syria, where Republicans are eager to expand U.S. military operations. In either case, Obama will end up making the same decisions for the remainder of his term, since he already believes he has whatever authority he needs to fight ISIS.

So as much as anything this debate is about what powers the next president will have. Republicans pushing for a more expansive authorization are hoping that president will be a Republican, and that this resolution can be a tool for him to renew the Global War on Terror to all its former glory. Which could happen whether a resolution passes or not. It won’t take much more than a few more horrific videos.