Politics & Policy

A Defense Department of Lawyers

“War” Powers Act: President Obama speaks at the Pentagon (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Endless debates about war protocol hamstring our military efforts.

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly wants a mercenary army to supply the ground forces in the latest installment of the War on Terror.

And it seems the smart set can’t stop laughing. The Washington Post’s media blogger, Erik Wemple, called it an “insane” idea and suggested that allowing O’Reilly to peddle the idea on CBS This Morning was an “insane departure from that show’s standard.” The whole spectacle, Wemple opined, proved that O’Reilly will “never be much of a thought leader in policy circles.”

It’s true that on the left and the right, O’Reilly’s idea is being scorned fairly mercilessly. That’s understandable on the left. Arguably the most hated host at the most hated news network (in large part because both are so successful), O’Reilly could come out in support of the law of gravity and the usual suspects would run the headline, “Fox Host Supports Law Requiring Babies and Puppies to Fall from Great Height When Dropped.”

And while I have nothing but respect for both my Fox News colleague Charles Krauthammer and Naval War College professor Tom Nichols — both of whom have rejected O’Reilly’s idea with much gusto — I wish people would give it a bit more thought.

Let’s back up.

Ever since 9/11, Americans have been debating the limits of war, the rules of war, the purpose of war, even the definition of war. Weeks after it had already started bombing the Islamic State, the Obama administration was still struggling with whether or not we should call a sustained military assault “war.”

Brutal hammer-and-tongs politics have made that conversation difficult enough. But what has made things all the more frustrating is that while we debate a thousand points of view internally, it is still a one-sided conversation. That’s because, for our enemies, there’s nothing to debate. They know exactly what they mean by war, and they aren’t remotely confused about whom they’re at war with or what the rules of engagement are. That’s because there are no rules for them, save those they divine from Allah. Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their various imitators are not signatories to any international treaty, they observe none of the rules of war, and they have contempt for the opinions of what is called the international community. Islamic terrorists deliberately slaughter civilians, even proudly carving them up on camera. But on our end, we afford them rights “consistent” with the Geneva Conventions.

Now, let me say that, as misguided as this is, it speaks well of America’s intentions. We are better than our enemies, and I don’t think we should stoop to their level. But it also strikes me as undeniable that America is politically, diplomatically, psychologically, and legally hamstrung.

Let’s start with the notion that we are at war with “terror.” That convenient euphemism allows us to avoid the awkward truth that we are at war with Muslim fanatics, as Barack Obama almost admitted before the U.N. this week, breaking with his previous claim that the Islamic State isn’t even Islamic.

The declaration that we will not have boots on the ground is not only a lie — we already do — it’s a statement of political necessity, not military necessity. Forging a Potemkin coalition may be politically and diplomatically pleasing, but it’s militarily insignificant. If we really need the assistance of the UAE’s air force, Americans should demand a refund on the defense budget.

Then there’s the army of Dickensian asses in the room: the lawyers. As the Wall Street Journal’s Dan Henninger noted last week, the halls of power echo not so much with the talk of war but with the language of lawyers. The Department of Defense, which employs 10,000 lawyers, must debate the finer legalisms when crafting war plans. The supposedly moderate Free Syrian Army must first be “vetted” like an applicant for a junior partnership at a law firm.

Alas, the Pentagon isn’t immune to the same calcifying forces that have made the rest of government so inefficient and expensive.

Professor Nichols, who rejects O’Reilly’s idea out of hand, wrote a brilliant book on how the old Westphalian and Cold War systems are ill-equipped to deal with the new threats facing us. Jihadists cannot be deterred with the threat of force the way the Soviet Union was, because according to their warped religious views, dying in battle earns a VIP pass to an eternal orgy. Surely this fact alone calls for more creative solutions than lobbing Tomahawk missiles (at $1.4 million a pop) at empty buildings.

O’Reilly’s proposal surely has its flaws, but at least it’s driven by a desire to come up with a way to cut the Gordian knot we’ve tied ourselves in.

— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2014 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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