There may come a time in the very near future when Americans turn on the television and hear the news that the U.S. has opened up another front in the war against the Islamic State. According to an NBC News report published yesterday, the Pentagon is nearing a decision on declaring a named operation against the ISIS affiliate in the Philippines — a formal step that the U.S. military often takes to ensure a combat operation receives adequate resources, personnel and aircraft (manned and unmanned).
Unfortunately, the declaration of an active front in Southeast Asia will also be one more instance of a U.S. President expanding America’s involvement in the War on Terrorism without a peep from the country’s elected representatives in Congress. The fact that both the House and the Senate are currently on a long summer break, with their members sipping lemonade in their districts and enjoying strolls in the park, makes the timing of the Pentagon’s upcoming decision just a tad ominous.
Islamist gunmen terrorizing the Philippine security forces is not a new phenomenon; the predominantly Catholic country with a sizable Muslim minority in the south is poverty stricken and increasingly authoritarian. Critics charge that law and order under the stewardship of the Rudrigo Duterte government are essentially decided by vigilante justice; anybody suspected of being a terrorist sympathizer or part of the narcotics trade is shot dead in the street rather than hauled in by police, charged and prosecuted. The southern island of Mindanao, a generally poor area that often conflicts with the rest of the country, has been a prime recruiting ground more localized Islamist groups and, sure enough, is now a theater of opportunity for ISIS — an organization that thrives on enlisting hopeless individuals seeking a cause greater than themselves.
This is where ISIS has chosen to make a stand; since militants swept into the city of Marawi in May, the Philippine army has attempted to bomb the group into submission. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced in the fighting, according to the Philippine military. Apparently, the Trump administration is getting tired of the standoff.
Whether or not sending U.S. pilots or drones to drop bombs in Marawi is a good decision is a subject for another day. There’s a cogent argument to be made that ISIS must be fought early wherever it happens to show its face; Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be steadily losing his caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but the group is still a force that can cause a lot of problems and unleash a lot of violence.
There’s also an argument to be made, however, about restraint and whether continuing to let the Philippines finish the job themselves — with U.S. intelligence support and perhaps advising behind the front lines — is the more sustainable option.
Whatever policy the Trump administration settles on, the White House and the Pentagon shouldn’t be the only organs of the U.S. government determining what is in America’s best interest. The legislative branch, the branch closest to the American people’s grievances and desires, should be involved in some way too.
Legally speaking, the Trump administration will argue that congressional authorization to extend U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia is unnecessary. If ISIS is the target, presumably the 2001 authorization for the use of military force would apply (never mind for the moment that this resolution has long ago turned into a carte blanche for three presidents over 15 years). But even if the 2001 AUMF does apply, it’s not too much for the American people to expect their lawmakers to make their voices heard. One day after NBC published its story, there haven’t been many (if any?) that have done so.
In the meantime, Americans better prepare for an eighth front in the War on Terrorism.