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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Reining in the beast

When Peace House presented its Marjorie Kellogg National Peacemaker Award to Jeff Merkley at its 2015 awards dinner, I had the privilege of introducing the senator. I remember telling the crowd that those of us who lobby legislators put them into three categories — already with you on the issue, opposed to you, or persuadable. But I went on to say that a few lawmakers constitute a fourth category; they’ve been out front on the issue before you even approach them. Regarding peace issues, Merkley consistently has been in that fourth category.

He still is. Last week he filed an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) bill that provides an alternative to the Corker-Kaine AUMF currently being debated by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on which Merkley serves. In a May 23 news release, he said his bill was written to “make sure that Congress, not the president, has the ultimate say in the decision to send our troops into battle. That is why my AUMF ensures Congress must vote proactively before the president expands the war to new groups and territories and puts in additional checks and balances, including a three-year sunset clause, limits on ground troops and requiring adherence to international law.” The full text can be read at https://www.merkley.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Senator%20Merkley%20AUMF.pdf

Both Merkley’s bill and Corker’s would replace the AUMFs that Congress passed in 2001 and 2002 authorizing military action in Afghanistan, Iraq and anywhere anyone-who-in-any-way-was-responsible-for-the-9/11-attacks lived. That vague wording gave presidents carte blanche to wage an unending war on “terror.” Merkley contends that Corker’s bill, which he concedes is the one likely to pass, does little to constrain presidential discretion.

Just how far the original authorizations have been stretched was revealed when we learned last year that, on Aug. 3-4, four U.S. Special Forces soldiers had been killed in a firefight in Niger. What were they doing in that former French colony? Fighting terrorists, of course, these ones calling themselves ISIS in the Greater Sahara. According to French and Nigerien security officials, this threat to U.S. security has 40 to 60 core members, about the size of some neo-Nazi groups in the U.S.

Instructive information surfaced in the aftermath of the deaths. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command, told the House Armed Forces Committee that we have about 6,500 troops and 1,000 private contractors (mercenaries?) across the continent. Presumably someone knows what they are all doing at any given time, though the Pentagon’s May 10 report on what went wrong in Niger said that the men who ran into trouble had pursued a different mission than they had filed with command.

The truth is that, since the end of World War II, both the CIA and the Department of Defense have been interfering in the internal affairs of numerous Third World and sometimes Second World countries. It isn’t often that the general public has known about their activities at the time, and neither have most members of Congress. And when their consequences surface, we rarely have had reason to be grateful.

I was with Merkley at a small gathering Tuesday when he spoke briefly about his AUMF bill as well as some other current work. I was tempted to tell him that our national security apparatus has long been beyond public control, and that nothing short of dismantling it will end its depredations. Out of gratitude for his efforts, I held my peace.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.

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