An array of issues are testing the 2016 GOP presidential contenders’ foreign policy bona fides. When it comes to the use of drones against the metastasizing infestation of jihadists throughout the Middle East and to the collapse of Iraq, candidates are giving us a preview of their strengths and weaknesses.
Last week Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) urged his colleagues to pass legislation he co-authored by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) that requires “the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to complete an independent assessment of the available intelligence supporting any determination by the Administration that an identified U.S. person is engaged in acts of international terrorism against the United States and meets the government’s criteria for approving the use of targeted lethal action. This legislation will require an independent assessment of the nomination of a U.S. person for lethal strike to be completed within fifteen days. It also requires the DNI to immediately notify Congress in writing of the results of the assessment, and the identity of the U.S. person.”
At least a couple of things are wrong with this. First, the DNI works for the president and is in no sense “independent.” Suggesting otherwise is misleading. It is Congress, and ultimately the voters, that acts as a check on the president’s war powers, and we should not take false comfort in thinking the DNI will “independently” provide oversight. Second, former Justice Department legal adviser John Yoo explains, “It looks like it doesn’t require the President to receive the DNI’s approval before acting. If that is the case, it’s just a reporting requirement and constitutional (it would be similar to the process where the executive branch notifies the intelligence committees of covert actions through the process of making a finding). If it actually required that the President could not act without the DNI’s analysis first, then it would be unconstitutional.” Still, this does not make for smart national security policy. “We are in a time when we want to overcome the current Commander-in-Chief’s reluctance to exert American power forcefully,” says Yoo. “The last thing we should do is create another bureaucratic hurdle for Obama to hide behind to explain his passivity while the American-led world order is starting to crumble.” In putting forth this legislation, Rubio is acting like a senator appealing to the base’s anxiety about this president, not a leader looking to bolster the executive branch he may seek to lead.
As if to underscore the importance of executive wartime powers, we also learned about the actions of an American-turned-terrorist. The New York Times reported on a recruitment video:
Although the recruitment video has circulated among extremist groups for some days, intelligence analysts now believe the man with the blurred face is a 22-year-old from Florida who blew himself up last month in a suicide attack on Syrian government forces that killed 37, according to senior American government officials.
The man, Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who took his own life in a truck bombing mission, is one of roughly 100 Americans who have tried to travel to Syria to fight alongside Islamic extremists, or who have actually done so. American officials express deep concerns that the video may inspire others to follow his path.
The Times opines (albeit in a “news” report) that “there was little the United States could do to stop him because there are no American or allied forces in Syria, and certainly none who could have taken action inside the militant organization that Mr. Abusalha had joined, according to government officials.” But with adequate intelligence (impossible if we dismantle or shackle programs like the NSA data collection programs) and with drone technology, we can locate and kill terrorists who have taken up arms against the U.S. This is precisely why the far left and right’s aversion to drones – based on a misreading of the 14th Amendment’s application to wartime – is so untenable and dangerous. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has made his views clear about drones — he thinks the Constitution applies overseas to Americans engaged in war with the West. But what about Hillary Clinton and other 2016 contenders? They should let us know whether, if they had Abusalha in their sights, they would act on intelligence and use of drone weaponry to prevent a mass killing.
While he missed the mark with his drone-targeting legislation, Rubio showed presidential-caliber leadership on Iraq with an impressive floor speech. Arguing that we must first secure our own personnel and implore the Iraqi government to crack down on corruption and repair its breach with Sunnis, he nevertheless was candid about our responsibilities:
[T]he U.S. must continue to provide lethal assistance to the extent possible to help these Iraqi forces, particularly those concentrated in Baghdad, to repel and push back against this group. . . . [U]ltimately, while the use of force is never popular around here, I want to be blunt and clear about something. We are going to have to take some sort of action against this radical group. That is not the choice before us. The choice before us will be whether we take action now or we take action later. Because what we can never allow is for another safe haven like pre-9/11 Afghanistan to emerge anywhere in this world, where terrorists can plan, practice, and ultimately conduct attacks against us here in the homeland or interests around the world.
Unlike the president and voices on the far right and left, he made clear that a pre-9-11 defensive posture is irresponsible and dangerous:
We must never forget the lessons of September 11, 2001, where a group of radical jihadist terrorists used a safe haven in Afghanistan to murder innocent Americans and carry out the most devastating attack in the history of our nation. It was not that long ago that this happened. And there are groups around the world that aspire to that now. What they need is a place to do that from. We cannot allow that place to emerge. There is no greater responsibility on the federal government of this land than to provide for the security of our people, and the choice before us will be whether we prevent it now or whether we deal with the consequences of it later.
In contrast to Rubio, Paul did his best impression of Obama’s “on one hand . . . and on the other” approach to national security. He seemed to rule out action. But maybe not. But definitely don’t use force. He sounded, well, like a freshman senator.
“I hate that Mosul is falling, but I also think that for 10 years we have supplied the Iraqis and they can’t stand up and do anything to defend their country, and it is all up to us?” he said during questions to a panel before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He said he was trying to think about Iraq from the perspective of a soldier and repeatedly characterized the dynamics in the Middle East as “confusing.”
“You could even go back 10 years and say, you know what, it might have been a little more stable when we had that awful guy, [Saddam] Hussein, who hated the Iranians,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m for having Hussein. I’m saying geopolitically we had people at somewhat of a standstill over there and now you have a really confusing mess.” …
“I am not saying don’t be involved,” he said. “I am saying try to help in some way. But really think seriously before we say, ‘Oh, it’s real easy. We have the might.’ We do. We could go in and we could do it. But are you willing to let 4,000 more soldiers die in Iraq, Americans, to bring back Mosul? I think it’s terrible what’s happening, but the Iraqis need to step up and defend their country, and I just don’t know if I’m ready [to] send 4,000 soldiers in.”
Got that? He makes Obama sound decisive.
There are no easy answers these days, in part because of a fundamentally flawed foreign policy by the Obama-Clinton-John Kerry team. That is all the more reason to press those who want to succeed Obama to come clean. Do they want to further crimp presidential action against terrorists? Do they believe it’s illegitimate to hit American terrorists overseas? And perhaps most important, what do they intend to do –- if anything –- about Iraq? The answers to those will tell us a lot about who’s ready to be president.