A war against anyone who doesn't like the U.S.?
Language in a new defense bill could authorize the military "to pursue anyone suspected of terrorism, anywhere on earth, from now to the end of time." So says a New York Times editorial, but the issue is not so-clear cut.
New language contained in a defense bill does tweak the Authorization for Use of Military Force approved by Congress after 9/11, but it does so to shore up existing policies, not to license a broader war on terror.
What's the difference between the two documents?
The AUMF, as it's called, authorized the president 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."
The House Defense Authorization bill says this: "As the United States nears the 10th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001, the terrorist threat has evolved as a result of intense military and diplomatic pressure from the United States and its coalition partners. However, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces still pose a grave threat to U.S. national security. The Authorization for Use of Military Force necessarily includes the authority to address the continuing and evolving threat posed by these groups."
The New York Times sees the term "associated forces" as so vague that it could include "anyone who doesn't like America, even if they are not connected in any way with the 2001 attacks. It could even apply to domestic threats." That is an exaggerated, if not paranoid, characterization of the language, which seems designed to cover groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
There is one problematic section of the authorization: language saying that the president has the authority "to detain certain belligerents until the termination of hostilities." This language is a significant departure from the AUMF, though it comports with President Obama's view of his authority to hold "the worst of the worst" indefinitely.
The real news about the language of the defense bill is that it codifies Obama's view of what he can do.
Photo: Camp Passab in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Credit: Paula Bronstein / Getty Images / April 25, 2011