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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Did Anyone Ask You About War in the Middle East?

Our policymakers seem to have made up their minds without consulting the people or their representatives.

Gaza,Town,Of,Gaza,Strip,,Israel,,October,10,,2023
Credit: Below the Sky

Did anyone ask you—or at least Congress—if it was O.K. to go to war again in the Middle East? After literal decades of fighting in that troubled part of the world, it looks like the U.S. is, without discussion, never mind vigorous debate, already at war in various sub-theaters of someone else's conflict. See if anything that’s going on seems like war to you.

The U.S. is flying drones over Gaza. The Pentagon says the unmanned aerial vehicle flights began after Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attacks in Israel and are being conducted “in support of hostage recovery efforts.” The drone missions are also providing “advice and assistance” to Israel. A total of seven different aircraft are flying across the region, four of them per day, passing information to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The U.S. is also supplying precision-guided munitions, fighter aircraft, and air defense capabilities, such as interceptors for Israel’s Iron Dome counter-drone systems, to the IDF.

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U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are in Israel. Officials anonymously told the New York Times several dozen special operators are on the ground working with the FBI, the State Department, and other U.S. government hostage recovery specialists. A senior Pentagon official told the “Forever Wars” blog that SOF are preparing for “contingencies,” which may include the active retrieval of hostages from Hamas. The U.S. previously said it has sent military advisers to help Israel. Christopher Maier, an assistant secretary of defense, indicated other soldiers have also been deployed. “We’re actively helping the Israelis to do a number of things,” Maier said.

Two American veteran-run organizations, the Special Operations Association of America (SOAA) and Save Our Allies, sent roughly two dozen volunteers, all former special operators, into Israel and Egypt to support evacuations. Each volunteer was chosen based on them having experience working with Egyptians or Israelis.

The volunteers arrange for local nationals to provide food and medical supplies to trapped Americans, and they have interfaced with the Egyptian military personnel who ultimately have to approve Americans’ departure. The special operations volunteers also coordinate directly with the IDF to ensure Americans are not targeted. They call their work “shepherding” and forswear a kinetic role. SOAA staff are also in Tel Aviv helping to coordinate evacuations. The volunteers’ actions, particularly working with the Egyptian and Israeli forces, come very close to off-limits traditional governmental roles, though the groups deny that.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has roughly 900 troops in Syria and 2,500 in Iraq at at least eight bases/facilities doing God-knows-what. An additional 300 troops will soon be dispatched to the Middle East. Thousands of Marines wait offshore in a massive armada.

The Pentagon awarded a multi-million-dollar contract to build U.S. troop facilities for a secret base it maintains deep within Israel’s Negev desert, just 20 miles from Gaza. Code-named Site 512, the base is also a radar facility that monitors missile attacks on Israel.

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American service members stationed in the Middle East have endured at least 27 attacks by Iran-backed terror groups. There have been 16 attacks in Iraq and 11 in Syria as we write this, with more nearly every day.

American fighter jets launched two retaliatory airstrikes against locations in eastern Syria on October 26, which were followed by at least six additional small-scale re- retaliatory attacks in the region. A Pentagon spokesperson said the military would “do what we need to do to protect our troops.”

The USS Carney, a destroyer in the northern Red Sea, intercepted four land attack cruise missiles and 14 drones launched by pro-Iranian Houthi forces in Yemen. A Pentagon spokesperson said the U.S. is prepared to do whatever is needed “to protect our partners and our interests in this important region.” United States military personnel are deployed to Yemen to conduct operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS. The attack marked the first time ballistic missiles were launched at Israel since Saddam Hussein fired his Scuds in 1991. The action by the Carney represented the first shots by the U.S. military in the defense of Israel in this conflict.

The ability of the president to make war is a contentious issue that has evolved over the course of American history. The Framers’ intent was to vest the primary power to declare war only in the hands of Congress. This was seen as a way to prevent the president from unilaterally committing the nation to military conflicts, reflecting concerns about an overly powerful executive.

The idea didn't last very long, only until President Thomas Jefferson used military force against the Barbary Pirates without a formal declaration of war. The first official declaration by Congress was not until the War of 1812. Over time, presidents began to assert more authority in matters of war, often without obtaining formal declarations from Congress. The ability to use military force became more flexible, and presidents argued that they had inherent powers as Commander in Chief. Congress approved its last formal declaration of war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Korean War, followed by the Vietnam War, marked a significant turning point in the balance of war powers between the president and Congress. The conflicts, as well as all the brushfire wars of the Cold War, were waged without a formal declaration. In response to growing concerns about presidential war-making authority, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973. This required the President to consult with Congress and seek authorization within 60 days of introducing U.S. armed forces into hostilities or conflicts. It has been near-completely ignored or treated as a technicality, an afterthought.

The 9/11 attacks led to the passage of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which granted the President broad authority to use military force against those responsible for the attacks. This AUMF was used to justify U.S. military actions in various regions, including Afghanistan and Iraq, and literally the whole rest of the world (apply as needed.)

With all this as background, at what point of involvement in the Israeli conflict will we talk about it? The old “boots on the ground” standard, which was never applied to Syria, Yemen, or Iraq War III anyway? Or, as in Ukraine, will Joe Biden simply lead us into another endless war with nary a word of debate and a blank check from a cowardly Congress and media?

Leaving aside one’s feelings for or against Israeli or Palestinian actions, it is clear America is again at some sort of war in the Mideast. The difference between what is happening now and “war” is more about semantics than it is about combat. The old definition, something about boots on the ground, no longer serves any function in a world where combat is carried out by remote control and gestures such as the deployment of small numbers of special forces can be enough to fan a political flame into a literal one.

It is long past time we talked about making war.