The United States launched airstrikes on another country’s soil this week. Again. According to the Pentagon, the “defensive precision” strikes hit their targets in Iraq and Syria. Great victory, huge success, everyone shrugs and goes about their day.
Had almost any other country in the world fired missiles outside its borders, it would have been a crisis — here, it was Sunday.
The U.S. government is basically allowed to conduct military operations on autopilot with the slightest oversight and accountability.
It bears pointing out that this is not a great way for a country to handle matters of war and death, especially not the most powerful country in the world, and especially not a country that espouses the power of democracy. The U.S. government is basically allowed to conduct military operations on autopilot with only the slightest oversight and accountability.
And while Congress is finally moving to do the bare minimum to curtail the White House’s ability to conduct “private wars,” there’s no sign that the executive branch is willing to dismantle the system that made these strikes a casual affair.
The aerial attacks were against “facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in the Iraq-Syria border region,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby stated. Honestly, the who and what of the attack are almost secondary in this case because it bears almost no impact on the how of the matter. Which is to say, “How is it that the Biden administration has the authority to fire off missiles without there being a peep of debate in Congress or among Americans?”
Kirby offered up two defenses of the legality of the strikes in his statement:
As a matter of international law, the United States acted pursuant to its right of self-defense. The strikes were both necessary to address the threat and appropriately limited in scope. As a matter of domestic law, the President took this action pursuant to his Article II authority to protect U.S. personnel in Iraq.
Let’s unpack that some, starting with the international law defense. It’s true that under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, states have a right to protect themselves against aggression. And it’s also true that the militias targeted have allegedly been using small drones carrying explosives to dive-bomb bases in Iraq in the last few months, including some where U.S. forces operate.
That’s a troubling development — but here’s where the real problem lies. First, while Article 51 has been a favorite justification from the U.S. for its military strikes, it’s debatable whether the clause was meant to allow for protecting troops based overseas instead of attacks directly on U.N. member states. Second, there wasn’t an attack occurring when the “self-defense” strike was launched — or even immediately preceding the U.S. strike. (The militias in question did, however, launch a retaliatory attack against U.S. forces based in Syria on Monday, which prompted return artillery fire from the U.S.)
It’s striking to me, pun unintended, that the Pentagon wouldn’t cite what until recently would have been the likely best legal justification for the attack.
Third, and most important, Iraq — the sovereign country that has in theory been the one actually under attack in these drone bombings — says that the U.S. was out of pocket Sunday. The strikes were a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and national security,” according to a statement from the military spokesperson for Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
There are definitely domestic and international political reasons for Kadhimi to go hard on Biden right now, including not wanting to aggravate Iraqi political parties that have Tehran’s backing. And their larger neighbor just…