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Deborah Pearlstein

That Syria War Power Debate, Continued

by Deborah Pearlstein

Cross-posted at Balkinization

If, as I argued earlier this week, the 2001 AUMF passed by Congress cannot be read to authorize the growing set of U.S. military actions against Syrian and Iranian forces in Syria, does the President’s Article II power standing alone support these strikes? The best articulated argument I’ve seen that the President has the Article II power to attack Syrian aircraft (or Iranian drones or any non-ISIS force in Syria) in the interest of defending U.S.-allied Syrian government rebels goes something like this. The President surely has Article II authority to act in defense of U.S. facilities and troops overseas without first waiting for congressional authorization, a necessary extension of the President’s power (on which there is near uniform agreement) to “repel sudden attacks.” As relevant here, this authority should be understood to extend to the defense of certain organized third parties (whether a state like Britain or our allied non-state Syrian Democratic Forces) operating (as Bobby Chesney puts it) “in close coordination with the U.S. military in a combat setting.” In such a situation, I take the idea to be, our interests are closely enough aligned and our military forces closely enough entangled, that an attack (or threatened attack) on a third party ally is effectively the same as an attack on us.

This ‘third party self-defense’ theory of the scope of Article II power is in one sense quite a bit narrower the currently prevailing position of the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel – which, under President Obama, took the view that the President has constitutional authority to use military force on his own so long as an important U.S. interest was at stake, and so long as the quantum or nature of contemplated force didn’t actually amount to “war” within the meaning of the Constitution’s “declare war” clause. Under this OLC view – based in part on OLC’s assessment of post-World War II presidential practice – one need not develop any specialized theory of third party self-defense to justify the use of executive power here; the current President could surely assert one of several U.S. concerns in Syria as the important interest at stake (say, protecting the interest of regional stability), and so long as the strikes were limited in scope and duration (i.e. less than “war”), all of these actions could be said to fall within the scope of Article II, whether defense of battlefield allies was among the expressly named interests or not.

Yet there are at least three ways in which this ‘third party defense’ notion may be said to go beyond even the broad 2011 OLC conception of presidential power: (1) I am not aware of any previous practice in which the President has asserted the particular national interest of defending battlefield allies as such as a justification for authorizing the use of force abroad. Now it is surely one of the difficulties with the 2011 OLC opinion that it leaves so open-ended the question of what counts as an national interest sufficiently important for the President to use force, but if we are to take seriously the notion that past practice matters here, it would seem important to identify some at least analogous illustration on which to rely. (2) To the extent past examples of “important” national interests matter, the case for using force to protect a zone in a foreign country within which our own military might train opposition forces strikes me as vastly less impressive than the interest in, say, ridding the world of the scourge of chemical weapons. Indeed, the “de-confliction” zone we are now using force to protect is geographically just over the border from a country (Iraq) in which we have every right (thanks to that nation’s consent) to be operating militarily and, presumably, training anti-ISIL forces all we like. Above all, (3) in the 2011 Libya strike (and almost all previous post-World War II operations), unilateral executive uses of force abroad were taken in concert with UN authorities. For reasons I alluded to briefly in my previous post, both our downing of the Syrian jet and the recent U.S. strikes to preserve its non-state allies’ right to operate in the “de-confliction” zone appear to be in violation of the UN Charter (a treaty we are obligated to observe as supreme law of the land under our own Constitution’s Article VI). Whether one considers that an Article II problem, an Article VI problem, or simply a violation of international law – the United States’ legal position here is as precarious as it gets.

Is Now a Good Time to Go Back to that U.S. War Power Debate?

by Deborah Pearlstein

Cross-posted at Balkinization

Because it’s too easy for our growing war in Syria to get lost amidst other also-pressing news, I want to be sure to note that last week ended with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee formally requesting the Trump Administration’s legal justification for a growing set of clashes between the U.S. military and armed forces allied with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The U.S. military has of course been engaged in anti-ISIL operations in Syria since 2014. But this recent violence – including the incident last week in which the U.S. military shot down a Syrian jet it said was firing on U.S.-allied non-state forces on the ground, as well as multiple U.S. efforts to defend its creation of a “de-confliction zone,” an area in Syria surrounding a garrison used by U.S. Special Forces to train partner forces there – involves the United States far more directly in state-to-state conflict with Syria (and its allies, Iran and Russia) than we have previously undertaken. Apart from the mammoth policy implications of this kind of escalation, it is far from clear what domestic legal authority supports it. In this post, I’ll address the notion that an existing statute authorizes these operations. In a later post, I’ll take up the suggestion the President’s inherent power under Article II of the Constitution does the job.

One possibility the Administration has advanced to justify its recent conduct is that the anti-Syria actions are (at least implicitly) authorized by the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF), which gave the President the power to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those nations, organizations or persons he determines were responsible for the attacks of September 11. The Obama Administration indeed relied on the 2001 AUMF for its operations against ISIL in Syria. And while many of us have written critically (e.g. here) about the plausibility of relying on a 2001 AUMF to attack a group that did not come into existence until years after 2001 (and is indeed today the sworn enemy of the group, Al Qaeda, that all agree was responsible for the attacks of 2001), we might just for a moment set those arguments aside to consider the new claim on its own. The new claim is that to the extent the AUMF supports U.S. operations in Syria at all, it surely also must include the implied authority to defend U.S. forces operating there against whomever might subject them to attack.

The notion that the AUMF contains some implied authority for U.S. troops engaged in operations under its auspices to defend themselves against foreign attack is in one sense entirely plausible. If, as the Supreme Court held in 2004’s Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the AUMF contains the implied authority to detain war prisoners under its auspices because such detention was a recognized incident of the use of force under international law, then surely self-defense of one’s own forces (at least to the extent permitted by international law) should also be within the realm of implied statutory authority. The problem is, U.S. self-defense is not what most (or maybe all) of these recent incidents have involved. (For a nice list of recent actions in Syria, see here.) By the United States’ own account, the Syrian SU-22 we shot down last week was firing on local anti-Assad fighters the United States supports, but there was no indication U.S. forces themselves were remotely at risk. CENTCOM rather explained that the move was in “collective self-defense” of coalition-partnered forces – a concept that appears pulled from Article 51 of the UN Charter (to which the United States is of course party) providing in relevant part: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.” Even if one were to assume the text of the AUMF should be interpreted with guidance from relevant international law, Article 51 by its terms limits the right of “collective” self-defense to UN member states. Local anti-Assad forces, whatever their merits, aren’t states. More, especially to the extent that what we are doing in establishing our “de-confliction zone” is effectively seizing an area inside Syrian territory for our use and defending it from incursion by Syrian or other forces, we are not engaging in defense (self or otherwise) at all, but rather in the partial armed occupation of another country – which is, without putting too fine a point on it here, the opposite of a recognized incident of force under international law.

So what about finding a relevant implied authority in the AUMF under other principles of statutory interpretation? Ignore international law for a moment – could the AUMF be read based on its text, context or legislative history to authorize the military operations we’ve carried out against Syria and Iran on behalf of anti-ISIL allies here? To pursue this theory, it is impossible to look just at the Administration’s latest interpretive move, but rather at the set of inferences one would have to draw from the AUMF itself. For buying the notion that the 2001 AUMF authorizes U.S. bombing of Syrian aircraft or Syrian-allied forces in Syria in all the circumstances we have in recent weeks requires us to embrace not just one dicey inference, but three: (1) that a statute limited by its text to authorizing force against the groups that attacked us in 2001 extends to a group that did not exist in 2001 (and is itself at war with the group that did attack us in 2001); (2) that the statute includes some implied authority to defend our own forces from attack not only against those nations and organizations the statute authorizes us to fight, but as against any nations and organizations anywhere worldwide our AUMF operations, whether or not our assertion of self-defense complies with international law; and (3) that statute further authorizes us to “defend” any local group with which we might ally in the course of global AUMF operations – up to and including apparently excluding a sovereign state from its own territory for the purpose of carving out some training space for the local group.

It is, to put it mildly, implausible that the Congress that passed the 2001 AUMF thought it was authorizing all this. The textual limitation of the 2001 AUMF to the groups responsible for the attacks of 9/11; the Charming Betsy canon of interpretation and others that would favor reading a statute to accord with our binding treaty obligations where possible; and the total absence in legislative history of any intention to authorize force against Syria and Iran – all weigh against any such construction. Which leaves us, alas, with the President’s power under Article II of the Constitution. I’ll pick up in a future post there.

Evening Panel on International Law and National Security

by Deborah Pearlstein

Hope our New York-area friends will be around for this one – Cardozo Law School and the ICRC are hosting an evening panel discussion: “A View from Abroad on Current Trends in Targeting, Detention and Trials.” The panel will be at Cardozo Law School, 55 Fifth Avenue in New York, May 18, 6:00-7:30p.m., and features OJ’s own Kevin Jon Heller, along with Marko Milanovic, Noam Lubell, and Joanna Harrington — all moderated by the superb (and currently visiting Stanford professor of human rights) Beth van Schaack. RSVP here.

The Strike in Syria – Is the International Law Calculation Different Now Than in 2013?

by Deborah Pearlstein

In 2013, there was I think broad agreement that the United States lacked any international law justification for the use of force against Syria following its initial use of chemical weapons: there was no UN Security Council resolution authorizing such force, and no assertion by the United States (or anyone else) that this was an action taken in national self-defense. The closest anyone came to a theory of international law legitimacy then was the UK’s suggestion that a post-chemical weapons attack was ‘illegal but legitimate’ for humanitarian reasons in the same way NATO’s un-authorized use of force had been in Kosovo in the 1990s. I detailed my reasons for concluding that illegal but legitimate argument seemed inapplicable to the proposed U.S. intervention following Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2013 here.

There are two significant differences I can perceive between the state of affairs on the ground in Syria today and the state of affairs in 2013 that have some bearing on the success of any international law defense in support of the latest attack. The first is worth noting, but I think unpersuasive. The United States today has its own troops on the ground in Syria – troops that were not present in 2013, troops stationed (at least some of them) as close as 50 miles away from the site of the chemical weapons attack. In the abstract, one might imagine this could lead the United States to offer some sort of self-defense justification (in defense of our own nationals). But given our troops are in Syria (to fight ISIS) without Syrian consent, and given Syria’s apparent determination since 2014 to avoid engaging U.S. troops directly despite this state of affairs, there seems little objective grounds for concern that Assad would soon train his chemical weapons on U.S. forces.

The second difference goes to the relative strength of the illegal-but-legitimate theory – the view that the use of force against the territorial integrity of another country is technically illegal, but should be viewed as ‘legitimate’ under certain limited circumstances (a view I could describe at best as a still nascent norm of international law). In 2013, the UK Prime Minister’s Office put it in the following terms. A state could take “exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Such a legal basis is available, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, provided” a set of conditions hold. Those conditions: (1) “convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;” (2) it is “objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved;” (3) the force used is “necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need…”

There can be little doubt of the horror of the recent chemical attack, albeit on a smaller scale than the attack of 2013. I can imagine few international complaints about the proportionality of a strike targeting only the airfield from which the chemical attack occurred. Where the current administration is in a stronger position than the last is on the question of the objective availability of a practicable alternative to the use of force – thanks to the diplomatic efforts of the past administration, it is far more persuasive now than it was then to argue that the international community has tried through peaceful means and failed to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.

That said, there are at least three factors that persuade me against embracing the proposition that this exercise should be seen as akin to the Kosovo intervention in its relative international law ‘legitimacy.’ First, it was done with no apparent international support – neither from our allies, nor from other countries in the region. The response of foreign nations over the next few days will be significant and could change this calculus but for now, it is a glaring distinction from Kosovo. Second, precisely for the reason President Obama regularly cited against more aggressive U.S. intervention in Syria repeatedly during his administration, it is deeply unclear whether this highly limited attack will have any impact on the humanitarian situation on the ground. Finally, there is the explanation the President himself offered for why the United States undertook the action it did tonight. His reasons were threefold: (1) “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” (2) “Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council.” (3) “The refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.” I expect we will talk at length in the days ahead about each of these justifications. But while the speech was framed by the President’s own horror at the nature of the attack, none of the reasons given for the action bore any relation to speeding humanitarian relief to the people of Syria themselves.

The Draft Executive Order on Detention and Interrogation

by Deborah Pearlstein

It is early days, and much we don’t know – including, indeed, whether the draft Executive Order the new Administration is contemplating (as reported by the New York Times and Washington Post) is indeed an official document of the new Administration. For the time being, let me offer a few reasons why I’m worried, and reasons why I’m not (completely) (yet).

Why Worry

As reported, the draft order calls not only for considering the resumption of a CIA detention and interrogation program (discontinued under the Obama Administration), but also for reassessing existing directives for how law enforcement agencies should proceed following the arrest of a member of Al Qaeda (or associated forces) in determining the propriety of potential military custody (here’s current guidance); and for considering whether to reanimate detention operations at Guantanamo Bay, which has not received a new detainee since 2009. The draft order would revoke Executive Orders on these topics issued by the Obama Administration when it first took office and replace them with guidance that, among other things, pointedly does not make express the requirement that anyone in U.S. custody be treated consistent with the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture, or any other relevant treaty obligation the United States has undertaken; the draft order mandates only compliance with the domestic “laws of the United States.”

These are bad – disastrously bad – ideas, for reasons I and more importantly others (including a vast and bipartisan swath of our military and intelligence communities) spent much of the past 15 years establishing in detail. (Perhaps I’ll save a reiteration of the catalog of those reasons for another post.) Of particular concern at this stage, it did not take direct orders to troops to engage in torture across U.S. detention operations. Most of the detainee torture and abuse that happened in the years after 9/11 did not involve the waterboarding of “high value” terrorists. Most of the torture and abuse involved low-level troops and U.S. agents, holding low-level (or wholly innocent) detainees. The reasons for this were several – each important – but one of them was the administration’s equivocal relationship with the international legal regime on which training had long been based. (For a summary description recalling what happened and why at the wholesale level, see, e.g., this old piece of mind that seems unfortunately relevant again.) The Bush Administration’s public and private equivocation on its attention to these rules left, at the very least, a vacuum in guidance, into which vacuum rushed a series of directives that left little doubt that interrogators’ gloves, in any theater of operations, were meant to come off. Even if this administration does nothing else at all from this day forward on detention and interrogation issues, the draft order has already done some damage. Again.

Why Not Worry (Too Much) (Yet)

On the concerning topic of CIA detention, interrogation operations more broadly, and the future of Guantanamo Bay – mostly what the order does is require reconsideration of policies in place. It does not order the re-establishment of a global detention apparatus. Yet. In a functional administration, what would follow from this order is an interagency assessment of the value, including, among others, the Department of Defense and the CIA. Here’s when we get to test whether those internal executive branch checks so many of us have written about in recent years are really capable of slowing the train. There is some reason for optimism. Among others, Secretary of Defense Mattis is on record as an opponent of torture, a view he has (reports indicate) not hesitated to express to his new boss. And while incoming CIA Director Pompeo has expressed differing views in different contexts, there is little doubt members of the intelligence community below the director level retain an acute institutional memory of the personal and professional jeopardy they endured the last time a CIA Director asked them to “get chalk on their cleats” in pushing the line between lawful interrogation and abuse. It seems hard to imagine what more the new president could do to alienate those intelligence community professionals than he has done in the months since his election. Actually re-establishing the system of CIA detention and interrogation would require not only willing cooperation but personal courage of the people the President has compared to the Nazis. Even had that “chalk on their cleats” CIA Director not changed his mind (now agreeing, along with Obama’s former CIA Director, that CIA should never undertake waterboarding again), that is asking, as it were, a lot.

All outside the executive branch, there are checks against detainee torture and abuse now that did not exist in 2001. Some of them are critically important changes in U.S. domestic law since 2001 (Steve Vladeck notes some here), including limits on the kind of interrogation techniques that can be used by any U.S. agency against any detainee in U.S. custody. It would take an act of Congress to undo these laws, and it is not at all clear (I’d say unlikely) the administration could muster 50 votes to support the repeal in the Senate (where Republican Senator (and torture survivor) John McCain stands manifestly in opposition). It is especially less likely in light of the vastly more robust – and today, profoundly energized – domestic NGO community than existed in 2001. In 2001, a tiny handful of (underfunded) domestic NGOs had programs focused specifically on the human rights or civil liberties consequences of U.S. national security policy. Today, one can name a half-dozen such programs off the top of one’s head, all of which boast solid funding and a staff of deep knowledge and experience.

And then there are the allied nations that were essential to hosting the CIA’s secret global detention system the first time around, nations who unblinkingly rushed to our aid in both sympathy and self-interest after the 9/11 attacks. The new administration enjoys no such sympathy now. Indeed, several of the foreign states who aided the CIA in its efforts have faced their own domestic consequences for their role in facilitating U.S. efforts. (Here, for example, is the European Court of Human Rights decision concluding that Poland violated its human rights obligations for hosting a CIA black site in which two CIA prisoners who were waterboarded.) It is difficult to imagine they (or others having witnessed their experience) will be eager to volunteer their services again. Of course the new administration seems keen to make new and different friends.

A student asked me today where I was on a scale of concern to panic. The answer is much closer to the former at this stage than the latter. I’m counting on the constraints we’ve spent the past decade and a half reinforcing to get to work.

Keeping up with the Iran Deal

by Deborah Pearlstein

For those interested in the policy merits of the Iran Deal, it’s important to note the letter sent today by 37 leading American scientists, including multiple Nobelists, nuclear arms designers, former White House science advisers and the chief executive of the world’s largest general society of scientists — detailing the effects of the deal to date and urging the incoming President not to “dismantle” it. Here’s the Times article with a link to the letter.

For reasons others have addressed in substantial part, it is not possible for any U.S. president to now “dismantle” the deal in its entirety, the most significant international sanctions having been lifted by a binding resolution of the UN Security Council, a resolution all other veto bearing members of the Council remain committed to supporting. The United States could of course re-impose some or all of the national sanctions it had suspended in support of the deal. But at this point it is hard to see how the sanctions of any individual state, however powerful, would succeed in persuading Iran to abandon its decades old political and military activities in the region or do more than it is already doing to roll back its enrichment efforts.

The President’s Report on the Legal and Policy Frameworks

by Deborah Pearlstein

While hardly light reading, the Obama Administration’s new (released last week) Report on the Legal and Policy Frameworks Guiding the United States’ Use of Military Force and Related National Security Operations (the “Frameworks Report”) is, as several of our blogospheric colleagues have already noted (e.g., here) an invaluable document. The Frameworks Report breaks little or no new legal ground in illuminating the United States’ current understandings of the intersecting bodies of international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and domestic U.S. law governing U.S. military operations. But it does serve (at a minimum) three important functions as we head into new presidential administration I would be remiss in not highlighting. (more…)

Torture and the U.S. Military

by Deborah Pearlstein

Cross-posted at Balkinization

There should by now be little doubt that various members of the incoming administration, including the President himself, would be willing to torture terrorist suspects should opportunity arise. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump expressed a desire to return to “waterboarding” terrorism suspects and “worse.” Mike Pence declined to rule out torture when asked about it expressly this past weekend. Nominee for CIA Director Mike Pompeo opposed President Obama’s decision in 2009 to close C.I.A. black-site prisons and also to require interrogations to comply with the rules of the Army Field Manual. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the choice for national security adviser, is perhaps more equivocal. As a firsthand witness to the counterproductive effects of abusive interrogation, he has said that “I would not want to return to ‘enhanced techniques,’ because I helped rewrite the manual for interrogations.” On the other hand, “if the nation was in grave danger from a terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction, and we had certain individuals in our custody with information that might avoid it, then I would probably OK enhanced interrogation techniques within certain limits.”

Even with all best intentions, Congress and the courts are unlikely to play much role at the outset in reining in this particular kind of presidential ambition. There are clear statutory prohibitions against the use of torture as it is; and the courts are empowered to act only once an actual case or controversy is before them. It was in no small measure in the face of the same dilemma during the first George W. Bush administration that so many legal scholars turned to focus on the role of internal, intra-branch checks on executive power – the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, agency Inspectors General, and others. It also became apparent that the uniformed military could be included among potentially available checks on executive power.

After the attacks of 9/11, military lawyers and others in the Pentagon played a critical role resisting efforts by the Bush Administration to evade laws barring torture and cruelty to detainees in U.S. custody. Not only was such treatment illegal, they argued, authorizing techniques the troops had long been trained were prohibited was disastrous policy: it sowed confusion in the field, compromised operational effectiveness, endangered our troops, and undermined the mission they had been sent to carry out. Well beyond the Pentagon, it was a young Army specialist who helped blow the whistle on the torture that permeated the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and a Major General whose investigation made clear to Congress how inadequate resources, training, and accountability helped allow the abuse to endure and spread. Elsewhere, military lawyers urged Congress to investigate whether war crimes trials at Guantanamo could ever actually succeed in delivering justice. And it was an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel whose declaration about his experiences at Guantanamo extraordinarily persuaded the Supreme Court to change its mind and agree to decide whether the detainees there had a constitutional right to have their cases heard. Entirely apart from the military’s duty to disobey manifestly unlawful orders, both active duty military, and retired leaders, played a pivotal role in preventing America’s torture crisis from becoming worse than it was.

Yet as laudable as this service was, and especially as the incoming administration peoples itself with retired generals galore, the idea that the military might limit the President in the pursuit of his goals should seem at some level exactly backwards. The President is, after all, the Commander in Chief of the military, a symbol of our country’s bedrock principle of civilian control. That principle was born in part from a (Revolutionary War-era) fear of military oppression in ordinary life, a fear that seems unlikely today. But it was also driven by the worry that the military – whose political popularity is unsurpassed in contemporary American life – was capable of exercising outsized influence over democratic decision-making. The image of the “man on horseback” came to symbolize the concern that a particularly successful and charismatic commander could effectively lead the public down a path contrary to its own democratic interests, undermining the ability of elected leaders to accomplish the policy goals the People wanted them to fulfill.

While the military has of course changed dramatically since the Constitution was drafted, the enduring concern that the military might unduly influence politics led to a series of regulations beginning in the early twentieth century restricting active-duty military from engaging in political activities. Congress came to prohibit officers from holding civil elective office, and to impose criminal penalties for using “contemptuous words” against the President, members of Congress, or other elected officials. Today, active duty military personnel are prohibited from participating in partisan political fundraising, rallies, or conventions; using official authority or influence to interfere with an election; or soliciting votes “for or against a partisan political party, candidate, or cause.”

Such proscriptions are sensible. But these rules, coupled with powerful career incentives, have too often been understood to limit the honest expression of professional military dissent. There was in Washington’s time, and today remains, a critical difference between a military expression of partisan alliance and one of professional judgment. And there is certainly a difference between expressions of political disagreement, and an insistence on adherence to law. The era of Abu Ghraib taught us that there is a range of ways in which the military can, consistent with their own duty to uphold the nation’s Constitution and laws, help to steady the ship of state. Of course the military is no panacea. Plenty of troops supported Donald Trump, and not all would oppose a return to torture. But it is also clear that the military is capable of performing at least a part of the same service Americans should expect of all our political institutions: as a platform from which people of good will and a commitment to law can make their voices heard. Those concerned about a return to torture should reach out. For it is as least as likely as any of our institutional checks to help constrain whatever policy adventurism is to come.

The Unknown Unknowns

by Deborah Pearlstein

While I would like to be able to offer some meaningful insight into what we might expect from the foreign policy of Donald Trump, I don’t think it’s possible to overstate at this stage the depth of current uncertainty surrounding what he will actually do. Part of this uncertainty is a function of his preternatural ability to take every position on every topic. (Latest case in point: After Trump repeatedly criticized NATO as overpriced and obsolete over the course of his campaign, we learned from President Obama today that Trump assured the President in their oval office meeting that “there is no weakening” in America’s commitment “toward maintaining a strong and robust NATO alliance.”) Another part of the uncertainty flows from the apparent depth of Trump’s own ignorance of the possibilities of the executive branch. (Again only the most recent example, the Sunday Wall Street Journal reported of Trump’s meeting with President Obama: “Mr. Trump seemed surprised by the scope [of the duties of running the country], said people familiar with the meeting. Trump aides were described by those people as unaware that the entire presidential staff working in the West Wing had to be replaced at the end of Mr. Obama’s term.”)

And then there is the scope and strength of the federal bureaucracy – the career professional staffs of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, the intelligence agencies, and more – who, to judge by both newspaper reporting and my entirely non-scientific and idiosyncratic Facebook feed, are grappling mightily with whether to stay or go in the face of extraordinary new leadership. As U.S. Presidents have found time and again (and as I’ve written about in the context of the military in particular, e.g., here), this apparatus makes it difficult sharply to turn the ship of state even with the clearest of intentions and the greatest of bureaucratic skill. There is little indication (as yet) that the incoming administration has either. This is hardly intended to offer comfort or reassurance; I am incapable of greeting with anything but dread the election of a President who has, for example, openly advocated policies that would violate the law – including torturing prisoners with waterboarding “and a lot worse,” and killing the families of those he thinks threaten the United States. It is intended as a check on my own worst speculative instincts. And as a plea to those who are part of that apparatus to start out, at least, by trying to stay.

New Report on European Counterterrorism Practice

by Deborah Pearlstein

Anthony Dworkin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, has an interesting new report out about developing ways in which European governments are using force abroad to combat the threat of terrorism of various sorts. The study is full of useful data points so is worth reading in its entirety, but I write here briefly to emphasize a conclusion it does not reach. The way the study is pitched at the outset of Dworkin’s blog post about its issuance – emphasizing the convergence of U.S. and European counterterror legal theories – those reading quickly might imagine it to support the view that various European powers have at long last embraced the United States’ novel post-9/11 legal theory of a global, non-international armed conflict (NIAC) against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces. But the study itself makes clear that while France and Britain, for instance, have come to use force in Syria and Iraq for various reasons, it is not the case that their engagement in this conflict reflects an acceptance of the concept of a global NIAC. See, for example, this section:

“In one important respect, however, European governments involved in counter-terror wars have stopped short of the expansive legal position adopted by the United States. EU member states (including France, despite the rhetoric used by government officials) are united in rejecting the notion of a single transnational armed conflict with the ISIS or al-Qaeda network. In the words of one British official, they continue to treat these terrorist groups as presenting a series of ‘specific threats in specific locations….’ This approach reflects both a strategic view about the most effective approach to fighting terrorist organisations and a legal analysis that rejects the notion of a geographically unbounded armed conflict against a non-state group.”

Recent practice of a few European states to be sure bear on other important questions of, for example, the extent of the embrace of the U.S. “unwilling or unable” theory of overcoming sovereignty objections to the use of force; and, for example, how international human rights law is thought to inform state use of force in self-defense against terrorist groups. But those looking for evidence of European support for the existence of such a thing as a transnational NIAC won’t find it here.

Still on that Syrian IAC

by Deborah Pearlstein

Thanks to Ryan Goodman for his thoughtful entry in our ongoing discussion about the existence of an international armed conflict (IAC) in Syria. For those just joining, I’d questioned Ryan’s analysis that an IAC exists in Syria as between Syria and the United States on the grounds that none of the three recent events Ryan cited in support for his conclusion – the putative existence of a U.S.-backed “no-fly” zone in country, the United States’ mistaken attack on Syrian forces (which the U.S. says it mistook for ISIL forces), and the U.S. support for Turkish operations in northern Syria – established that the United States was now a party to a conflict against Syria (any more than earlier U.S. operations had established as much). Ryan responds solely on the matter of U.S./Turkish operations in the north, arguing that an area of northern Syria is now subject to occupation by Turkey, and that the United States is a “co-belligerent” with Turkey in this occupation.

Let me begin with an area of agreement – that if one state occupies the territory of another state it triggers an IAC. Is that what’s happening in Syria? I suspect Turkey and the United States would quibble with that characterization of affairs – both Turkey and the United States have stated that the area of concern is in the control of the Free Syrian Army, who have the support of coalition and Turkish forces. But for these purposes let us assume the situation is simply a partial occupation of Syria by Turkey. The core question here with respect to the United States’ status is whether its involvement demonstrates its co-belligerency with Turkey (against Syria).

Whatever else might be said about the concept of “co-belligerency,” a model of legal clarity it is not. Ryan cites to several useful posts on the topic (in a different context) by Just Security’s Nathalie Weizmann; and Rebecca Ingber has an indispensable article on the topic as well. Two points I think especially important for present purposes. First, as both Nathalie and Rebecca explain, co-belligerency is a concept from the (pre-UN Charter) law of neutrality that has been imported into the law of armed conflict; its scope and applicability in the modern law of even IAC remains the subject of much debate and little if any authoritative guidance. Nathalie and Rebecca thus rely mostly on arguments of various scholars to unearth its meaning. That said, second, as Nathalie describes it: “Under the law of neutrality, a State will become a co-belligerent when, in association, cooperation, assistance or common cause with another belligerent it participates in hostilities to a significant extent or it systematically or substantially violates its neutrality duties of impartiality and non-participation in the conflict.”

Is the United States (and for that matter, other air forces in the “coalition” it describes as participating in the north) “systematically or substantially violat[ing] its neutrality duties of impartiality and non-participation in the conflict” by supporting a Turkish occupation of Syria? I think it is certain that the United States would strongly contest that assessment. In the DOD press conference cited in Ryan’s original post regarding the fighting in northern Syria, the Pentagon spokesman was at pains to make clear that U.S. activities in the region were exclusively focused on attacking ISIL full stop: “When they [Turkish forces] began to focus on something other than ISIL then I think we had to withdraw our support for that. And so I think we are now trying to keep those elements separated and focused on the counter ISIL fight at this point….. [W]hat we have made clear is that our support is — our support to all parties is contingent upon the focus on ISIL. And that will be how we will continue to do this.” The news stories Ryan cites on the U.S. role in the region are consistent with this statement. From this I glean not only does the United States not share common cause with Turkey to the extent of any Syrian occupation, but that the United States does not cooperate, assist, or in any other way support Turkey to the extent that state is participating in any Syrian occupation.

While I think the public reports of activities in the region are all consistent with this view, my point here could hardly be to hope to settle definitively what exactly the United States and its allies are doing in northern Syria. The open sources speak for themselves, but undoubtedly do not contain the whole story. My point is rather, as I put it in response to Ryan’s original post, I think the claim that the United States is a co-belligerent in an IAC in Syria (based on these events) is hardly clear. Given that legal uncertainty, and given what I believe (and still believe) are significant negative policy consequences that would flow if the United States decided to publicly announce it was engaged in an IAC in Syria, I would not encourage the U.S. government to pursue such an announcement.

A Syrian IAC?

by Deborah Pearlstein

Like Gabor Rona, I, too, found Ryan Goodman’s post yesterday at Just Security intriguing. Further to our ongoing discussions here (e.g.) and there (e.g.) about the classification of armed conflicts, Ryan’s claim is that in light of three recent events (noted below), the armed conflict in which the United States is engaged in Syria (a conflict I think most have understood as a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) between the United States and certain non-state groups (including ISIL and Al Qaeda and associated forces)) is now international in nature – a conflict between (among others) the United States and Syria. He further argues that the ability to now classify the fighting as an international armed conflict (IAC) is a good thing for two main reasons: (1) the IAC designation triggers an obligation among all states (under the Geneva Conventions) to try or extradite those suspected of war crimes in that conflict, with the effect, he argues, of ratcheting up the diplomatic pressure on Syrian officials; and (2) it is possible for the United States (and presumably others) to reap the benefits that come with the legal classification “IAC” without also absorbing the burdens associated with (I take him to mean) the legally meaningless but politically weighty description, “war.” I disagree with Ryan’s analysis that the conflict is, for the reasons he gives, now an IAC. More, I tend to see the relative political and legal consequences of a U.S. recognition of such a conflict as having exactly the opposite effect he anticipates. Here’s my thinking. (more…)