Ryan has a fascinating but problematic post today at Just Security in which he takes international-law scholars to task for opportunistically flip-flopping on whether the US is involved in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda. Here is the crux of his argument, taken from the post’s introductory paragraph:
Those arguments have been inconsistent with regard to one fundamental legal question: whether the US is, as a matter of law, in an armed conflict. In fact, a pattern has emerged over the years: opposition to different actions has alternated between arguing that the US is—or is not—involved in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda. It sometimes seems as though the preferred argument depends on how that threshold question—whether we’re in a war—affects the interests at stake.
I thought about writing a letter to the editor in response, but there is no guaranteed that Just Security would publish it — and there would be no way for anyone other than a Just Security member to join the discussion (Facebook and Twitter, as I’ve said, being inadequate media for dialogue.) So I thought I would reply on Opinio Juris and invite interested readers to comment here.
The basic problem with Ryan’s post is this: it conflates inconsistency of outcome and inconsistency of principle. In Ryan’s view, “war” with AQ is a simple binary: either the US has been or has not been at war with AQ. As he puts it:
What might have been a better path over the past twelve years and, more importantly, the way forward? At the very least: a consistent position that one legal situation (war) or the other (not a war) exists.
Ryan thus equates inconsistency of outcome with inconsistency of principle: if scholars have taken inconsistent positions about war/not war between the US and AQ, that must be because they have adopted inconsistent legal principles (opportunistically, no less) concerning the existence of war.
But that is a flawed understanding of international humanitarian law. The basic principle of conflict qualification, as I have pointed out many times before, is this: the existence of non-international armed conflict is a fact-specific determination, one that depends on the organization of the non-state actor and the intensity of hostilities between the non-state actor and a state. Conflicts evolve over time in terms of both organization and intensity, so peace can turn into NIAC and NIAC can turn into peace. And, of course, there are many other types of conflict: NIAC can turn into IAC (Libya when the West intervened on behalf of the rebels); IAC can turn into NIAC (Afghanistan with the toppling of the Taliban); IAC can turn into occupation and occupation can turn into NIAC (Iraq); IAC and NIAC can exist alongside of each other (which would be the case if the US started bombing Syria); and so on. The qualification matters, because the type of conflict affects everything from targeting rules to the detention regime (as Ryan well knows, having written very intelligently about detention of civilians).
Because conflict qualification, especially concerning the existence of NIAC, is an inherently fluid and fact-specific determination, it is impossible to infer inconsistency of principle with regard to the nature of the conflict between the US and AQ from inconsistency of outcome. It is completely possible to take a principled approach to conflict qualification and yet not conclude that “one legal situation (war) or the other (not a war) exists.” Indeed, I’d go further and suggest that the most unprincipled approach to conflict qualification is the one that the US has adopted. The USG has never made an effort to take conflict qualification seriously; it has simply assumed the existence of a global non-international armed conflict between the US and AQ since bin Laden “declared war” in 1996. (Hence the USG’s ability to claim with a straight governmental face that al-Nashiri was able to commit war crimes prior to 9/11 and prior to the AUMF.) The only principle behind the US position is expediency — the USG’s desire to have its “war” with AQ governed by IHL instead of by IHRL.
Let me be clear: I am not defending all of the scholars that Ryan mentions in his post. I have vast disagreements with some of them, and some of them may well be arguing opportunistically. But I suspect that, if we examined many of their positions, we would find that their supposed inconsistency actually reflects a good-faith effort to take conflict qualification far more seriously than the USG ever has. Specifically, I’m willing to wager that most of those positions were based on (1) a rejection of the idea that the US can be in a global NIAC with AQ, an idea that to the best of my knowledge no non-American scholar accepts; and (2) an insistence that although the US and AQ can be involved in NIACs in specific geographic areas — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, etc. — the existence of such NIACs has to not only be determined based on the situation on the ground (organization and intensity), but also needs to be re-assessed over time.
Let me end with a couple of examples. In “Turn 1,” Ryan chides Allain Pellet for claiming that it was “legally false” the US and AQ were at war after 9/11 and takes Antonio Cassese to task for calling it a “misnomer” to describe the US/AQ conflict as a “war.” Dig deeper, however, and both Pellet and Cassese were absolutely correct. Pellet’s article was written 10 days after 9/11, nearly three weeks before the US began bombing Afghanistan. At that point there was no armed conflict between the US and AQ. One attack, no matter how horrible, does not a (non-international) armed conflict make. And Cassese was not denying the possibility that the US and AQ could be involved in a non-international armed conflict; he was denying that the US and AQ could be involved in a “war” — a term that has always been reserved for armed conflict between states. So his claim, too, was accurate.
Emerson is right — “[a] foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The problem is not with international law scholars who have “flip flopped” on the qualification of the armed conflict between the US and AQ; the problem is with the USG’s insistence that it has be either/or. When it comes to IHL, very few complex legal issues admit of simple binaries.