A former legal official from the Bush administration has warned that the text of President Barack Obama’s resolution authorizing the use of military force on Syria is so broad that it could justify attacks on Iran and Lebanon. Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law professor who resigned from the Bush administration over its executive overreach, wrote today in Lawfare that “the proposed AUMF focuses on Syrian WMD but is otherwise very broad” and that it “does not contain specific limits on targets.”
After Obama’s Rose Garden speech yesterday, he sent Congress the text of his proposed resolution on striking Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta. While Congress could modify the resolution, as it stands it’s a document authorizing the use of force on a broad array of targets and could justify deeper U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. Here’s more of Goldsmith’s analysis:
(1) Does the proposed AUMF authorize the President to take sides in the Syrian Civil War, or to attack Syrian rebels associated with al Qaeda, or to remove Assad from power? Yes, as long as the President determines that any of these entities has a (mere) connection to the use of WMD in the Syrian civil war, and that the use of force against one of them would prevent or deter the use or proliferation of WMD within, or to and from, Syria, or protect the U.S. or its allies (e.g. Israel) against the (mere) threat posed by those weapons. It is very easy to imagine the President making such determinations with regard to Assad or one or more of the rebel groups.
(2) Does the proposed AUMF authorize the President to use force against Iran or Hezbollah, in Iran or Lebanon? Again, yes, as long as the President determines that Iran or Hezbollah has a (mere) a connection to the use of WMD in the Syrian civil war, and the use of force against Iran or Hezbollah would prevent or deter the use or proliferation of WMD within, or to and from, Syria, or protect the U.S. or its allies (e.g. Israel) against the (mere) threat posed by those weapons. Again, very easy to imagine.
It brings to mind the AUMF passed in the aftermath of September 11. While that resolution directly concerned Al Qaeda and the Taliban, it was later broadened to justify drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia–even on targets that were clearly not part of Al Qaeda.
The Obama administration has made its case for a strike on Syria by emphasizing that it would be a limited attack. “This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope,” the president said yesterday.
But the consequences of a strike on Syria are unpredictable, as the International Crisis Group said today in a statement cautioning against the use of military force and pressing for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis. Any U.S. military action on Syria increases the chance for a regional escalation of the conflict.
While escalation is not guaranteed–the macho statements from Iran are likely bluster– injecting more firepower into a brutal civil war could easily spiral out of control. If Obama gets his Syria resolution passed, he will have the political backing to embroil America in another Middle Eastern war if the Syria conflagration spreads as a result of a U.S. strike.