[…] Al Qaeda—certainly given how that term is generally applied today—is less a group or organization than it is a brand name and a set of ideas. Those ideas are a combination of radical salafism, faith in the use of violence and animosity toward the United States. To the extent there are personal or other types of ties between the remnants in South Asia and violent Islamist radicals elsewhere, there is not necessarily a correlation with use of the Al Qaeda name. Some have seen advantages in adopting that brand name, and others have not. Western use of the name covers a diffuse set of individuals, cells and groups with widely varying objectives even if they share to comparably varying degrees the Al Qaeda ideas. In short, there is not a distinct entity called Al Qaeda that provides a sound basis for defining and delimiting an authorized use of military force. To say that we are “at war with Al Qaeda” is not at all comparable to declaring war on the Republic of Ruritania.
The shaky justification, used by each of the last two presidential administrations and leaning on a thin Congressional expression passed amid the shock and anger right after a terrorist attack more than ten years ago, means we have been denied the sort of proper public debate and consideration that ought to precede any authorization to use military forces overseas. That means defeating the sound purpose of the War Powers Resolution, regardless of what one may think about the constitutionality of that particular legislation. One reason such a debate and consideration is all the more important to have when U.S. forces get engaged in places such as Somalia and Yemen is that there is ample evidence—even if we limit our purview to counterterrorism—of how the application of U.S. military force can be counterproductive in breeding more radicalism, more anti-Americanism and more terrorists. This has especially been an issue with the drone strikes, but it can also apply to military engagement on the ground—just as it has in Afghanistan.
Another reason the use of military force in such places as Somalia and Yemen needs the kind of careful preauthorization consideration that has been lacking is that employing force there means getting enmeshed in complicated local conflicts that can easily be no-win situations for the United States. In both of those countries there are many different fault lines and animosities, such as the southern Yemeni resentment over northern domination ever since the two Yemens merged in 1990. The United States has an interest in Yemeni-based violence that can harm U.S. persons or property. It does not have a vital interest in most questions involving the internal ordering of Yemen itself.
Adding to the confusion about these issues is the increasingly sloppy use of the term “Al Qaeda”—by much of the Western press, among others—in describing events such as fighting in southern Yemen between Islamist insurgents and the government. We read about “Al Qaeda” gaining or losing control of territory, as if street fighters trying to gain control of Jinzibar are the same people who build bombs to put aboard U.S. airliners. They aren’t the same people—notwithstanding the individual “links” that are habitually cited as the reason to apply the Al Qaeda label to people who really are more interested in who controls those streets in Jinzibar than in any of Bin Laden’s ideas about attacking the far enemy as a way to wage global jihad.
We probably also are seeing a consequence of the unrealistic American zero-tolerance standard of counterterrorism, combined with political opponents who are poised to pounce whenever that standard is not met. President Obama and his counterterrorist aide John Brennan know the political consequences if an attack originating in Yemen takes place and opponents can charge that the administration did not do enough to prevent it with measures up to and including the use of military force. The near-miss attempt to bomb a U.S. airliner in December 2009 weighs heavily on them. And thus U.S. force is being put to use in more conflict-ridden lands in ways that might kill a few more terrorists but also raise costs and risks that Congress and the American public have never carefully considered.