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July 08, 2014

No, The United States is Not at War with Radical Islam

Yesterday, in a Daily Beast article about how little attention legislators are paying to NSA-related breaking news, Senator Lindsey Graham was quoted as saying, “I don’t really know about what they’re saying in the paper. I know [NSA intelligence-gathering] is necessary. We’re at war with radical Islam.”

Senator Graham, a lawmaker and a lawyer, is wrong. The United States is not at war with “radical Islam” and has never been.

It would be next to impossible to wage a war against an ideology (imagine the absurdity of a country declaring war against liberal Christianity). Having “radical” Islamic beliefs is simply not a legal justification for an armed conflict, and even if the United States wanted to wage that war, “radical Islam” is such a vague descriptor that it’s practically meaningless. There are hundreds, if not thousands of groups that might fall into the category (many, if not most, are nonviolent groups). Is the United States “at war” with all of them?

In the days after the September 11 attacks, Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which gave President Bush the authorization to “…use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Since taking office, the Obama administration has interpreted the language above to include “associated forces” of al Qaeda, but has never publicly disclosed a list of the groups that they include in this category. It’s unclear, for example, if the so-called Islamic State (formerly Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS), currently running rampant in Syria and Iraq, is on the administration’s list. If it is,  the administration seems to have disregarded its stated criteria for “associated forces,” which specify that an entity must have entered the fight alongside al Qaeda and have operational links to it. IS has been excommunicated from al Qaeda, and is actively engaged against al Qaeda in the region.

This ambiguity about the war’s parameters essentially makes a large part of it secret, including much of the legal rationale behind the targeted killing program, and who is being targeted and why. President Obama has said that he would like to wind down the war and retire the AUMF to ensure that the war isn’t endless, but it’s unclear what steps he’s actually taking, partly because of this secrecy.

Moving away from a paradigm where armed conflict is the main engine for counterterrorism would help. Smart counterterrorism  includes a variety of tools, a whole-of-government approach, and more reliance on partnerships with allies. The president doesn’t need the AUMF to respond to immediate threats to the country, and any threats that rise to the level of armed conflict should be vetted by the Intelligence Community and debated in Congress.

Transparency is also part of this process. The fact that Americans don’t even know who the opponents are in this war leads to all sorts of serious problems, and creates an environment where a Senator can claim with little pushback that the United States is at war with “radical Islam.”

The United States is not at war with radical Islam—that’s clear. But much about this armed conflict remains dangerously murky. The Obama administration needs to reveal more information about this war—and start taking concrete steps to end it.

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty