James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

Friday File: Has Congress Abandoned Its War Power?

by James M. Lindsay Friday, May 20, 2011
Capitol Hill seen at sunrise.

Capitol Hill seen at sunrise. (Jim Young/courtesy Reuters)


Above the Fold. The ringing you heard today is the timer expiring on the War Power Resolution’s sixty-day clock. Back on March 20, President Obama notified Congress, as the resolution requires, that U.S. forces had launched Operation Odyssey Dawn. The resolution has been President Obama’s strongest argument that he has the legal authority to initiate hostilities; the law effectively gives presidents sixty days to use force without congressional authorization. So Obama now has to fall back on dubious claims of presidential authority based on past practice, which are far weaker than his lawyers admit, or semantic dodges (e.g., it’s NATO and not the United States fighting, small wars and drone strikes don’t count) that don’t withstand scrutiny. So while Obama once argued that “the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” he is establishing a precedent that future occupants of the Oval Office could use to justify just that. But Obama is not the only one to blame. It’s ultimately up to Congress to defend its war powers. The courts are not going to do the job for it. But so far Congress hasn’t shown much interest in standing up for itself. While the WPR clock rings, the House is on recess. Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called for a “specific resolution that would give [the president] authority.” So far, however, few lawmakers are jumping on his bandwagon.


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Guest Post: Are U.S. Troops Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan?

by James M. Lindsay Tuesday, May 17, 2011
American soldiers walk through a former Taliban-held village north of Kandahar on April 8, 2011.

American soldiers walk through a formerly Taliban-held village north of Kandahar on April 8, 2011. (Bob Strong/courtesy Reuters)

Reuters reports on a new study by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) that could roil the Afghanistan debate here at home.  The study concludes that while U.S. forces are winning on the battlefield against the Taliban, they are losing the support of the Afghan people. The study draws on polls done among men in southern Afghanistan where the fighting has been the heaviest. The study is not publicly available yet, but since its conclusions are already making their way into the news cycle, my colleague Steve Biddle kindly offered up his assessment.

The ICOS analysis doesn’t appear to have been released yet, so I haven’t been able to read the whole study. But for what it’s worth, my initial reaction is that the Reuters story reflects a common misunderstanding of counterinsurgency (COIN).

Many people misunderstand the purpose of population security in COIN. The phrase “hearts and minds” doesn’t help. The purpose is not to win by making the locals like you, as the bumper sticker seems to imply. The purpose is to replace insurgent control of the population with government control of the population. This normally requires combat to clear insurgents from the area and defeat their efforts to return. Combat in populated areas is always unpopular with resident civilians. Whatever else they want from life, civilians want to survive. And combat in populated areas always kills innocent civilians as a byproduct of the effort to kill insurgents. Before the government offensive, there is usually little violence–when insurgents control the area they don’t need to kill people. Then the government launches an offensive to clear the insurgent presence, and there is a lot of violence, with inevitable damage to civilian property and deaths of innocent people. When asked, as ICOS did, civilians normally prefer insurgent control and calm over a war amongst their homes and families that might get them killed. Once the government establishes real, persistent control, the preference returns to calm and safety over combat and danger, but this now favors the government over the insurgency.

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