International Law

Corn Comments on the Costs of Shifting to a Pure Self-Defense Model

By Robert Chesney
Sunday, June 2, 2013, 11:23 PM

The following guest post is from Professor Geoffrey Corn (South Texas College of Law), in response to a post in which I raised the possibility that, in light of the non-battlefield targeting standards articulated by the President in his NDU address and other considerations, it is no longer obvious that the armed-conflict model is serving a function beyond the battlefield (excepting the legacy GTMO detention cases), in the sense that the same authorities could be invoked on self-defense grounds.  Geoff writes in to express concerns about the costs of moving in that direction:

Professor Chesney’s post in response to the President’s speech at the National War College invited reactions. I want to focus a brief response to the end of the post, where Professor Chesney wrote:

 Yesterday’s speech reinforces my conclusion, as it clarifies both that the long-term detention option is defunct and that we are using force within boundaries that will be no different postwar thanks to the flexibility of the pre-9/11 self-defense model.  Put another way, it seems to me ever clearer that the current shadow war approach to counterterrorism doesn’t really require an armed-conflict predicate–or an AUMF, for that matter.

The President’s speech – like prior statements of other administration officials – certainly suggests that the inherent right of self-defense is defining the permissible scope of kinetic attacks against terrorists. I wonder, however, if this is more rhetoric than reality? I think only time will tell whether actual operational practice confirms that “we are using force within boundaries that will be no different postwar”. More significantly, if practice does confirm this de facto abandonment of AUMF targeting authority, I believe it will result in a loss of the type of operational and tactical flexibility that has been, according to the President, decisive in the degradation of al Qaeda to date. The inherent right of self-defense is undoubtedly a critical source of authority to disable imminent threats to the nation, but it simply fails to provide the scope of legal authority to employ military force against the al Qaeda (and associated force) threat that will provide an analogous decisive effect in the future.

It strikes me (no pun intended) that arguments – or policy choices - in favor of abandoning the armed conflict model because the inherent right of self-defense will provide sufficient counter-terrorism response authority may not fully consider the operational impact of such a shift. From an operational perspective, the scope of authority to employ military force against the al Qaeda belligerent threat pursuant to the inherent right of self-defense is in no way analogous to the authority to do so within an armed conflict framework. This seems especially significant in relation to counter-terror operations. According to the President, the strategic vision for the “next generation” counter-terror military operations is not a “boundless ‘global war on terror’ – but rather a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”

Relying exclusively on the inherent right of self-defense would, I suggest, potentially undermine implementing this strategic vision. It seems to me that disruption, and not necessarily destruction, is the logical operational “effect” commanders routinely seek to achieve to implement this strategy. Destruction, when feasible, would obviously contribute to this strategy. It is, however, doubtful that a group like al Qaeda and its affiliates can be completely destroyed – at least to the point that they are brought into complete submission - through the use of military power. Instead, military force can effectively be used to disrupt this opponent, thereby seizing and retaining the initiative and keeping the opponent off balance. Indeed, President Obama signaled the benefit of using military force to achieve this effect when he noted that al Qaeda’s “remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They have not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11.”

A key advantage of the armed conflict framework is that it provides the legal maneuver space to employ military force in a manner that will effectively produce this disruptive and degrading effect. In contrast, under a pure self-defense framework, use of military force directed against such networks would necessarily require a determination of imminent threat of attack against the nation. Unlike the armed conflict model, this would arguably make conducting operations to “disrupt” terrorist networks more difficult to justify. I believe this is borne out by the reference to the pre-9/11 self-defense model. While it is true that military force was periodically employed as an act of self-defense during this era, such use seems to have been quite limited and only in response to attacks that already occurred, or at best were imminent in a restrictive interpretation of that term. In short, the range of legally permissible options to use military power to achieve this disruptive effect is inevitably broader in the context of an existing armed conflict than in isolated self-defense actions.

It may, of course, be possible to adopt an interpretation of imminence expansive enough to facilitate the range of operational flexibility needed to achieve this disruptive effect against al Qaeda networks. But this would just shift the legality debate from the legitimacy of continuing an armed conflict model to the legitimacy of the imminence interpretation. Even this would not, however, provide analogous authority to address the al Qaeda belligerent threat. Even if an expanded definition of imminence undergirded a pure self-defense model, it would inevitably result in hesitancy to employ force to disrupt, as opposed to disable, terrorist threats, because of concerns of perceived overreach.

It may be that a shift to this use of force framework is not only inevitable, but likely to come sooner than later. It may also be that such a shift might produce positive second and third order effects, such as improving the perception of legitimacy and mitigating the perception of a boundless war. It will not be without cost, and it is not self-evident that the scope of attack authority will be functionally analogous to that provided by the armed conflict model. Policy may in fact routinely limit the exercise of authority under this model today, but once the legal box is constricted, operationally flexibility will inevitably be degraded. It is for this reason that I believe the administration is unlikely to be too quick to abandon reliance on the AUMF.