Executive authority has evolved under
President Obama. Hindered by Congressional stagnation but unwilling to give up
on the promises of his campaigns, Obama’s administration maneuvered a deeply divided
legislature and nation by heavily relying on executive orders and regulations.
In light of the recent election results, there has been no shortage of
attention placed on how President-Elect Donald Trump may also embrace a robust
executive to pursue his own initiatives and drawback those of his predecessor.
Many policy shifts propelled by executive action, including those related to healthcare,
immigration crackdowns, and the expansion of DACA (Deferred Action for
Childhood Arrivals) and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), may well be
affected by Trump’s own executive actions.
But the effects of an emboldened
executive under President Obama will not be limited to the domestic front. In
recent years, the White House has pursued a contradictory policy of attempting,
perhaps in reaction to internal pressure, to curtail U.S.
airstrikes abroad while simultaneously upholding its interests and the
interests of its international partners in limiting the
of Islamist militias. Restricting U.S. involvement to airstrikes in partnership
with international allies has prevented Washington from becoming entangled in foreign
occupations and U.S. troops from being deployed to combat. But, the combination
of U.S. warplanes in the air and military advisors on the ground can lead the
administration to forgo Congress in its pursuit of international terrorists.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Somalia.
The Obama administration has quietly
mounted a “shadow war” against
Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia that may resemble U.S. involvement in the
nearby conflicts in the Middle East. Like in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the U.S.
has favored international coalitions, airstrikes, and regional partnerships
over “boots on the ground.” And also similar to those conflicts, U.S. efforts
have expectedly expanded as the enemy becomes more daring and the threat
becomes more alarming. In Iraq and Syria, the establishment of an ISIS
quasi-state provoked the U.S. to take the global coalition’s attacks to new heights while
al-Nusra’s dangerous expansion in northern Syria led the administration to more closely
on attacking the al-Qaeda linked group. In Somalia, an emboldened and
increasingly deadly Al-Shabaab has emerged as a clear threat to U.S. allied
African Union troops and the future of the East African state. As a result, the
administration has seized on an opportunity to attack Islamist militants they
fear may threaten the
to strengthen alliances with regional
and to establish security in the Horn of Africa.
But U.S. strikes in Somalia, unlike
those in Iraq and Syria, have come into question for having a
shaky legal basis. The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) from
Congress to carry out attacks on the perpetrators of the 9/11 tragedy has been cited
as support for U.S. action against groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, like Jabhat
al-Nusra and even al-Qaeda’s offshoot turned enemy, ISIS. But U.S. military
attacks on Al-Shabaab, which did not exist at the time of 9/11 and whose links
to al-Qaeda’s leadership are less clear, have led some to believe that U.S.
involvement in Somalia is not covered by the 2001 authorization. The fact that
Congress has still not voted on U.S. strikes on Al-Shabaab, which after many
months could violate the War Powers Resolution limiting combat deployments to
60 days before requiring the approval of Congress, constitutes another
facing the administration in Syria.
As American airstrikes in Somalia
escalated, even killing over 150 suspected
foot soldiers in March, the administration moved swiftly to shore up
any doubts over the legality of Washington’s involvement. Perhaps unsurprisingly,
Congress was not consulted. Instead, the administration deemed Al-Shabaab to be
a legal target under the 2001 war authorization due to its leaders’ ties to
al-Qaeda. And while debates remain over the extent of the links between its
parochial foot soldiers and al-Qaeda’s leadership, the administration will now
have a legal target in Al-Shabaab. Now defined as an al-Qaeda affiliate, the
administration has argued that strikes on Al-Shabaab in defense of American advisers
on the ground are not subject to the limits of the War Powers Resolution. In
other words, legislation specifically aimed at uprooting the perpetrators of
9/11 in the aftermath of the attack has been recycled as legal grounds for
striking Al-Shabaab in Somalia.
All this comes after what appeared to
be a concerted
on behalf of the Obama administration to limit what many saw as an excessive
use of airpower. In 2013, Obama looked
prepared to turn the page on a period marked by U.S. drones and warplanes
spread out through international skies. The President called for drone strikes
and counterterrorism operations to be limited to areas of “active hostilities.”
introduced significant oversight, including the input from top lawyers, to
judge the legality of a proposed strike. But it didn’t take long for the
administration to realize the consequences of their own actions. In Somalia,
not defined as an “area of active hostilities”, the military has often claimed
it is acting in defense of its advisors on the ground. It remains unclear,
however, just how threatened Americans were during the March airstrike that
killed over 150 suspected Al-Shabaab fighters.
The U.S.-backed “shadow war” in
Somalia represents a glimpse of Obama’s military legacy. Determined to avoid
deploying “boots on the ground” but plagued by the emergence of threatening terrorist
groups, Obama has quietly expanded the legal scope of military force all while
publically advocating for its constraint.